Global Embrace of Localization: Changing the Power Dynamics in Development and Humanitarian Aid Systems
April 13, 2022
April 13, 2022
Whether it is called localization, decolonizing foreign assistance, community ownership, locally- led development, or any other term, the global impetus to change the power dynamics in our current development and humanitarian assistance structures has never been stronger. Simply put, stakeholders throughout the assistance ecosystem have come to the shared conclusion that their work is more effective, more resilient, and more equitable when local partners play a lead role in identifying sectors, planning programs, implementing projects, and evaluating progress.
The ground truth, credibility, accountability, and long-range time perspective these local partners bring to the table are essential for success in achieving collective objectives under the Sustainable Development Goals and the Humanitarian Grand Bargain. By contrast, the current power game where the deck is stacked to give all the trump cards to bilateral and multilateral donors, UN agencies, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and development contractors must change.
In her seminal address on A New Vision for Inclusive Development at Georgetown University in November 2021, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power embraced this vision and outlined her agency’s response to this imperative.
For Administrator Power, localization requires four principal lines of effort. First, it means channeling a larger portion of development and humanitarian awards directly to local civil society, business, and other institutions that are supported by and accountable to local communities. She pledged that 25 percent of USAID direct funding will go to these entities in the next four years – up from 6.2 percent in 2021—and that 50 percent of its projects over the next decade will put local partners in the lead to co-design projects, set priorities, drive implementation, and evaluate impact of aid programs.
These goals will be achieved by expanding existing programs such as Local Works and the New Partnerships Initiative; increasing the use of flexible, performance-based partnership tools like Fixed Amount Awards; and implementing new regional initiatives like Centroamérica Local, which will invest $300 million to expand USAID’s work with community-based partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras over the next five years to address the root causes of irregular migration.
Second, localization means changing the power dynamics among local actors, international prime partners, and donors to ensure a seat at the table – and preferably at the head of the table – for local actors, under the principle, “Nothing about us without us.” There will be a new focus on listening to the voices of marginalized populations, including women, people with disabilities, youth, the LGBTQI+ community, indigenous populations, displaced persons, and ethnic and religious minorities.
This effort requires international partners to display new humility and flexibility, and a willingness to adapt their systems and procedures to accommodate new and smaller partners unfamiliar with the complex application and compliance procedures, language preferences, and reporting requirements of each international partner. At USAID, one reflection of this effort is the launch of a new and simplified online entry point into the agency, “WorkwithUSAID.org.”
Third, USAID is adapting its planning processes to reflect a “local systems” approach tied to each country’s unique political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions and targeting the drivers and barriers to change. Donors cannot come to the table with preconceived notions of sectors and regions for their assistance; instead, they must align their contributions to priorities identified by representative and accountable local partners. At USAID, this means integrating local voices into all its planning processes, and modifying its Assistance and Acquisition Strategy, Risk Appetite Statement, Policy Framework, Local Capacity Development Policy, and Partnership Principles.
Finally, Administrator Power challenged her USAID colleagues to serve as global public advocates and thought leaders for the localization agenda, using their convening authority, partnerships, voice, and power of example to persuade others to climb on the localization train. At the April 2022 Skoll World Forum, for example, Administrator Power called for a global convening this summer of stakeholders to debate, discuss, and reaffirm concrete commitments to this agenda in a power-neutral environment.
Admittedly, there is a déjà vu quality to this approach: locally- ed assistance has figured prominently in the vision of USAID for more than a decade, including under the USAID Forward initiative launched by former Administrator Rajiv Shah in 2010 and the Journey to Self-Reliance launched by former Administrator Mark Green in 2017. Both these initiatives achieved important yet limited successes, leading some to ask what is new about the current effort.
Most importantly, Administrator Power’s approach goes beyond a set of specific projects and programs and provides a cross-cutting lens through which USAID will address key global challenges, including COVID response, climate change, democratic governance, anti-corruption, population displacement, and conflict resolution. In contrast to unilateralism under the previous administration, the current push embraces multilateralism and views localization as an important means of achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Grand Bargain.
Further, the localization effort draws strength from the growing global embrace of the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility movement. It builds on the new focus on groups previously excluded from conversations whose ownership, credibility, accountability, and ground-truth are essential to the sustainability and resilience of all our efforts.
As a result, there is a new receptivity for this approach. Since sharing her vision in November, Administrator Power has received a flood of support from across the development and humanitarian assistance world. Coalitions of civil society groups from the Global South, including CIVICUS, Peace Direct, and the Network for Empowered Aid Response, coordinated a letter of support signed by nearly 1,300 groups and individuals within their networks. Similar responses have come from coalitions of international NGOs, reform advocates such as the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, U.S. legislators, and for-profit development contractors who will need to adapt their business practices under this new approach.
A white paper recently published by the Council of International Development Companies reads, “The impetus for locally-led development reflects a desire to support local institutions in the most effective manner and to effect a fundamental power shift that nurtures sustainability; prioritizes the perspectives and preferences of recipient governments, local civil society organizations and host country professionals; reflects current ethical sensibilities; and incorporates the voices of vulnerable groups.”
In the bipartisan Omnibus Appropriations resolution just signed by President Biden, the U.S. Congress backed this shift with new funding for Centroamérica Local that frees USAID from existing earmarks and allows program funds to be used for operating expenses – two important and rare authorities that allow needed flexibility and staff resources in identifying and supporting local projects. Further, in the on-going OECD Development Assistance Committee Peer Review, the U.S. shift toward localization is being identified as a top priority from which the international donor community has much to learn.
It is said that you can announce new policies through poetry, but you must implement them through prose. The challenges ahead for USAID and all development and humanitarian assistance providers seeking to adapt their systems are daunting. Among the questions to be addressed:
Yes, these challenges to a localization agenda are daunting, but the rewards for success – a global coalition of empowered local civil society, governments, donors, businesses, foundations, academic institutions, and international organizations working in concert to achieve sustainable, resilient, effective, and equitable outcomes – make it essential for us to embrace them.