Some Good ideas on Promoting locally-led development in the UK aid system

The British NGO network BOND recently published a report on ‘catalysing locally-led development in the UK aid system’, which summarizes a six month project involving dozens of people from different aid organizations. I have to confess that I started reading with low expectations – there are a lot of pious exhortations on localization, which all too often ignore crucial issues of power and incentives. Not this one though, it’s really good, drawing on systems thinking and power analysis to try and understand why localization is not happening, and on positive deviance to identify and learn from some positive outliers. Ending in some crunchy practical suggestions. Some extracts:

‘This idea is not new. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit resulted in the Grand Bargain – 51 commitments to encourage international humanitarian actors and donors to work more effectively and transparently and place more power and direct funding in the hands of national and local responders in the countries where development work happens. In the same year, the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy explored how to move away from hierarchical systems of international development and philanthropy towards more equitable people-based development, and was where the hashtag #ShiftthePower was first used. Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and changes to aid budgets have disrupted business as usual. This pivotal moment is our opportunity to present and imagine new ways forward – harnessing the power of collective action in the UK INGO sector – and to listen and respond to ideas in the places where INGOs work.

There’s a nice visual summary of the key factors driving/blocking progress

The 31 page report then boils everything down into ‘six heavily connected areas that describe the relationship between international and local CSOs.’

UK accountabilities

Increasingly, UK INGOs must demonstrate in-depth accountability to donors for a number of reasons, including declining support for UK aid amongst the general public and NGO scandals, such as those relating to safeguarding and CEO salaries. As a result, UK INGOs are perceived to be ‘better equipped’ than local CSOs to deliver programmes on scale and report back to donors. We identified the pattern in which INGOs and their partners can be hyper accountable to donors, and the limited structural incentives for direct accountability to local communities.

Governance and organisational structures

UK INGOs are predominantly staffed by white people, and their headquarters are overwhelmingly based in the UK. Headquarter staff make strategic decisions, secure funding and are the main contact for donors. Headquarters often absorb a percentage of funding and staff there earn more than staff elsewhere. Crucially, decision-making is the responsibility of people who too often have limited knowledge of local contexts. This model results in accountability flowing upwards rather than downwards.

Funding flows Donors are risk adverse.

Their preferred method for funding civil society is a system that uses policies and regulations that are based on UK laws. Their expectations and approach to risk, compliance and value for money are developed in the UK. Many funding mechanisms require the UK office to be the lead organisation. This reinforces a top-down relationship, where UK INGOs are in a position of power because they have the relationship with the donor and are responsible for completing due diligence on local organisations. This results in UK INGOs developing expertise in working with donors, including an ability to speak a donor’s ‘language’. All this prevents local CSOs from developing their own capacity to fund-raise, meet donor requirements and carry out due diligence. This creates a system that favours UK INGOs, enabling them to invest in fundraising and quality programme design. In turn, local CSOs are perceived as lacking in capacity and accountability to deliver projects.

Understanding local capacity

If local CSOs and national staff are excluded from strategic and programmatic decision-making, inefficient development interventions are likely. Voices of those most affected by the issues being addressed tend not to be heard and they lack decision-making power and resourcing. Communities and project participants can be perceived as passive ‘beneficiaries’ who need to have their skills built, rather than whole, active, and resourceful actors with the solutions to their own problems. INGO communications often perpetuate this stereotype and embed this damaging image into fundraising proposals and programme design.

Use of knowledge and narrative

Certain types of knowledge and expertise are more valued than others. Analysis, findings and knowledge pieces authored and developed in Western European countries like the UK or in the United States are often more valued than other insight. Expertise is often equated with academic credentials, and research, monitoring, evaluation and learning processes are often designed by those deemed to have the ‘right’ expert credentials. Entering the UK international development sector is competitive, and a requirement is for academic qualifications from elite universities, which means that lived experience tends not to count. Imagery and narratives often perpetuate negative stereotypes amongst donors and INGOs, which feed into the ideas of ‘developed versus developing’, beneficiaries rather than co-creators. The dominance of the English language also means that knowledge and learning products are developed by, and cater for, native English speakers.

Political and regulatory pressures on CSOs

Increased political restrictions and regulations for CSOs can often mean that accessing funds from overseas is challenging. Some governments that are hostile to CSOs impose restrictions on them, suppressing networks and political activity.

And another nice visual summary, this time of possible ways for INGOs and others to take action

My only caveat is the lingering attachment to the  ‘illusory we’. When it comes to INGOs, the report tends to argue that ‘we’ need to do X,Y,Z, but INGOs are themselves a diverse system, full of incentives and feedback loops that can encourage or frustrate change. What drives a press officer is different from a CEO, a fund raiser or a programme manager. They will have see localization differently depending on where they sit. And that shapes how organizations behave.

But all in all, this report seems like a really good starting point for any aid organization embarking on a discussion on localization.

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9 Responses to “Some Good ideas on Promoting locally-led development in the UK aid system”
  1. All excellent points, thanks for this and thank you BOND. One crucial thing though, elephant in the room I’d say: the need to involve donors like FCDO in the system changes that are needed. It can’t be done without them. I would call on all those organizing initiatives around this theme to please involve the donors.

  2. I think this report picks up on valid points. What worries me is whose voice is this? Is this a locally-led discourse? Is this local organisations and communities setting the agenda? Is this local power being realised? I think there is still the risk of this being the INGO ‘transformation to stay relevant’ agenda. There is I think an underlying problem with the notion of ‘shifting power’ as this is the INGO agenda. Instead should it be ‘relinquishing power’ and rather than ‘defining a new role for INGO’s’ should they step back and liberate the space for local CSO’s to lead, convene, collaborate with each other to set their own agenda based on their own discourse not just as the ‘national’ perspective but collaborating globally as diverse national perspectives uniting to form a new global system, defined by them?

  3. Thanks for sharing. This looks a very interesting report and great commentary. I wonder how much ukaid flows through NGOs and how much through large private sector consultancy companies which have consolidated in recent years. Ukaid seems to increasingly involve large scale grants and tendering systems requiring certain kinds of capacity and management systems but reducing incentives for locally led development processes and organisations or technical expertise (local or international). Icai recently indicated that funding for biodiversity and deforestation initiatives falls far short of what is required. So despite cuts this may mean larger programmes. An upcoming call for biodiverse landscapes might be prime ground for locally led processes to take centre stage but as this report indicates incentives will likely work against that.

  4. It is time for the proposition of strategies to follow the model that the local needs go shoulder to shoulder with global needs and to use the local human resources, taking into consideration the main local issues.
    Here is a shocking case of the use of philanthropy by various donors, who bear responsibility for failing to provide efficient support to the poor community in the Durres region. Their investment to build a community center ended up in becoming a derelict non-functional object with no value for the community.
    Guilt must be replaced by responsibility over progress.

  5. Ajoy Datta

    Thanks, this is really hard hitting (although nothing new). I thought the point about governance structures and organisational models in UK based INGOs (and how they work against localisation) links to the post you shared about internal advocacy (and how difficult that is). More exposure of the champions who are trying to bring about change internally would be helpful – although I know that is a double edged sword – the more visible they are, the more solidarity they may find with each other, but then they might also be rooted out by senior managers for being trouble makers.

  6. Masood Ul Mulk

    Lets not be ambitious. Lets start with small things. Lets start acknowledging local institution where they deliver humanitarian assistance by name and what they delivered. Why the hesitancy to name and acknowledge them. Secondly if an international organisation is paid institutional cost for local work, the local organisation must be paid the same if doing similar work; both aid through budgetary support delivered to government and local organisation deliver the same activity within an area the level of scrutiny they face for accountability they face must be the same.

  7. MJ

    Lots of very good points here around the structure of the aid industry, and extreme aversion to certain sorts of risks amongst major donors; for the most part these points are not very new, but they remain forever relevant. The one point where I would push back is this: donors need to make decisions between competing demands for their precious funds. To make these decisions, donors need to receive compelling proposals in a language they understand. Being able to develop and frame a clear description of the project one is proposing is thus a critical skill. (Ref a recent post here on logframes.) If, as is not infrequently the case, local actors are partly lacking in that capacity (which is often linked to language, but it is also a lot more than that), then someone has to act as the facilitator, and thus we arrive at INGOs (or expat technical advisers etc). So yes donors could do a helluva a lot more to make *substantial* amounts of their funds available to actors well embedded in their respective communities (which could include the odd INGO programme that have been operating there for years), but project design and presentation will not be easily done away with as a vital element in the fundraising process. (Ed: That’s enough self-justification for now.)

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