What the next government needs to do to prioritise locally led development

The UK has been integral in shaping the locally led agenda since taking part in the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

In recent years the UK government has made many commitments on locally led development. They have signed up to international commitments, such as the Grand Bargain, the Grand Bargain 2.0, the donor commitments to become a locally led funder and the OEC DAC recommendations on enabling civil society.

In the International Development White Paper the UK government committed to prioritising inclusive and locally led development, pledging to build equitable partnerships “based on mutual respect”, to acknowledge the UK’s past, to engage with humility and to be led by the communities, institutions and organisations closest to the issue. This is great progress, but the paper’s lack of specific strategies to address racism was notable.

In 2019, an independent review from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) commended the DFID (now part of the FCDO) for implementing strong accountability mechanisms and directly funding lower or middle income countries (LMIC) organisations, but recommended that it should “have a stronger focus on the long-term results of its CSO-implemented programmes, the localisation of development and humanitarian efforts”. Civil society have long called for the UK government to be more transparent on how much ODA reaches communities.

In 2023, in response to the IDC inquiry into Racism in the Aid Sector, the UK government acknowledged the need for a cross-cutting approach to bring about change, to tackle the root cause of problems, strive for racial equity, examine its internal culture and practices to address systemic racism and foster an environment where diverse voices are heard.

Since then, progress has been slow. There are pockets of good practice across the FCDO but they have struggled to make consistent headway across the department. For example, in 2020 the humanitarian department guidance for international NGOs was to pass on their cost recovery rate to local partners to cover overhead costs, but this is yet to be implemented across the department. Further work also needs to be made on improving the diversity of their UK-based staff including the numbers of senior managers who are people of colour.

With the upcoming election, this is an opportunity for the new government to share their vision for international development and set out how they are going to turn these commitments into practice. It will be crucial for the new administration to outline concrete steps and actionable plans to transform their words into real-world change in order to address root causes and build trust with civil society and partners around the world.

The new government should:

Show leadership and a commitment to inequality

Publicly recognise the UK’s colonial past and commit to addressing structural racism within the FCDO. This includes a rigorous examination of how power and racism manifest within the FCDOs’ work, organisational culture, policies, procedures and how they engage with partners and organisations. They also need to implement the recommendations from the IDCs inquiry into Racism in the aid sector.

Have difficult conversations that focus on redressing power imbalances

Facilitate and engage in sector-wide discussions to achieve an equitable power balance and commit to being an advocate and ally as a funder to build trust with civil society and support locally led development, ensuring to tackle the root causes of the problems.

Coherent approach across the department

Prioritise developing the local leadership strategy as a cross-department piece of work, in a meaningful and inclusive manner that centres people from lower or middle income countries (LMICs) and the diaspora.

Design funding to flow directly to the heart of communities

Design funding so that it supports locally led development. Give unrestricted flexible funding and ringfence at least 25% funding to go directly to LMICs and diaspora communities.

Embrace risk as a necessary element of social change

Trust the efforts that are being made by communities and embrace failure – you will not learn “what works” without it. Promote a trust-based approach to funding that is adaptable and review risk appetite regularly.

Next year marks the five-year review for the OEC DAC recommendations on enabling civil society, where the UK and other donor countries will have to share their progress. Given the UK’s early progress on locally led development, the new government should make locally led a priority for their first year, they must explicitly address racism within the aid sector, ensuring that funding reaches communities that need it, tackle unequal power dynamics and promote an inclusion and equitable decision-making process.

Importantly, this includes implementing strategies to dismantle systemic barriers faced by marginalised groups and ensure that anti-racist principles are integrated into all aspects of aid delivery and partnership formation. By adopting a transparent approach to reporting progress and challenges, the UK can demonstrate its commitment and leadership to creating a more equitable and just international development framework, setting a precedent for other donor countries to follow.