Courtenay Cabot Venton

What’s stopping aid from putting local people and organizations first? Answers from a global conversation

Guest post from Courtenay Cabot-Venton

The world is currently at an inflection point that could enable the transformation of aid for developing countries. The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the withdrawal of most international staff across the globe, has opened up space for more honest conversations around racism and the decolonization of aid. Talk of localization and a more direct shift of resources and power to local communities has garnered significant attention. The most common questions that I hear people ask are, “Why now? What is different? Are things really going to change?”

I have been helping to lead the FCDO’s (UK Government’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) expert advisory team on their global COVID-19 response. Localization has been a prominent and consistent theme. From a very practical perspective, we have had to reckon with a massive increase in social protection funding to 1.8 billion new people to help them cope with the effects of lockdown. The role of local actors – people who are known and trusted by their communities – has been critical to sensitize communities, minimize exclusion, ensure accountability and transparency, and communicate and mitigate risks. We have seen countless examples of local actors leading in the response:

Zakat networks in Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) raised and distributed $17 million in May 2020 to support workers and families, months before World Bank funding was approved and disbursed;

A network of 23,000 informal workers across Thailand not only provided immediate relief, but also facilitated a dialogue between national authorities and street vendors to re-open markets; and

SEWA –a network of over 2 million self-employed women in India –played a key role in facilitating government aid, informing members what they were entitled to, how to apply, as well as approaching local government officials on members’ behalf.

Despite their critical role, the official aid sector has failed at placing these local networks at the forefront. Most international support to local actors currently comes from private philanthropy, which accounts for just five percent of all Official Development Assistance (ODA). This means local actors have to spend precious time and energy competing for just a sliver of the pie. If local people and their organizations are going to take a central role, mechanisms to leverage more funding from bilaterals – who account for over 95% of ODA – are key.

Our team has been leading a series of convenings with a large group (100+) of Global South leaders, private philanthropy and bilateral government donors. Here is a snapshot of perspectives from across this group…

From Monica Nyiraguhabwa, Founder and Executive Director, Girl Up Uganda

As a leader of a community-based organisation in the Global South, the biggest challenge I face revolves around navigating existing power structures, which are oftentimes subtle and seemingly invisible, but always prove to be extremely disempowering. It can feel as though you are sitting at a table where everyone is discussing you, your challenges, and solutions to your challenges, but you are not welcome to contribute to the conversation. The current environment reinforces the antiquated narrative that philanthropy is transactional —the ‘now this is what I expect from you’ dynamic.

If one truly believes in investing in humanity and global equity then an authentic appreciation and trust in community-driven and led solutions must be developed (and invested in!). Additionally, individuals working in this space have to be comfortable with challenging personal biases and stereotypes and then put in the hard work to unlearn and reimage what giving up and redistributing power looks like. Because power is at the core, and everyone has a crucial role to play in disrupting the cycle.

From Peter Laugharn, President and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

No matter where we sit in the funding landscape, we should all continually be asking ourselves whether the right people are at the table. The most effective solutions come from the very people experiencing the issues we seek to solve. Unfortunately, the reality is that they are often excluded from decision making that has a direct impact on them.

We must fundamentally shift the narrative from viewing communities as problems to solve to active contributors and experts — this starts with how we lift up the voices and portray the communities we are serving.

Philanthropy has a critical role as convener and facilitator. At the Hilton Foundation, there are three paradigm shifts we are looking to make. (1) Recognizing that lived experience is expertise – we engage directly with people with lived experience, and compensate them for this expertise. (2) Shift resources – we are increasing direct funding to local/community-based organizations; for example, we have committed that 25 percent of the Foundation’s Refugees strategic initiative will go directly to local and refugee-led organizations. (3) Build capacity – we are supporting technical assistance for local organizations to serve their communities. We believe this will ultimately build more sustainable solutions and resilient communities.

From Arjun Tasker, Portfolio Manager for the New Partnerships Initiative (NPI), USAID

USAID has sought to re-envision its role as a genuine partner, rather than distant financier, in supporting countries and communities to sustainably manage their own development, since the early 90s. Locally Led Development (LLD) at USAID is about pushing management, measurement, and decision-making to be as local as possible,.

No one across the agency thinks that LLD is a bad idea, but a range of institutional, operational, and legislative constraints have proven difficult to tackle. For example, the Agency is bound by the same rules for procurement as the Department of Defense uses; and Congressional spending earmarks constrain the ability of funding to meet local priorities (two-year money that has to be spent down within 8 months before it is swept doesn’t provide a lot of scope for the kind of longer term funding that facilitates effective LLD).

But there is still significant scope for change:how can the Agency give up power to local actors in addition to giving money?; require its traditional partners to incorporate plans for fostering accountability and consequential feedback with local populations; and ask traditional partners such as INGOs to reconstruct the ways in which they work to advance LLD?

The evidence indicates that limits on funding to local actors is largely based on a variety of perceived constraints. These constraints are not only context-specific, but also reflect a ubiquitous perception of limitations, but without much evidence that they actually exist. They include: the perceived inability of local actors to absorb fiduciary, reputational and operational risk; to operate at scale and deliver multi-dimensional funding; and provide multi-dimensional programming that meets due diligence requirements.

Bilateral requirements to fund only through one or two intermediary structures eliminates the possibility of funding multiple smaller local actors. We need to re-conceptualise intermediary roles and structures. Private philanthropy also needs to bring its leveraging power to the table – using its flexibility to invest in new ways of working and building proof points to shift donor processes.

One of our biggest takeaways has been that we simply are not working together to collaboratively develop practical solutions that can move us beyond rhetoric. Our hope is that by having open and honest conversations about our realities and how we can start to bridge this gap, we will start to see meaningful change.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


16 Responses to “What’s stopping aid from putting local people and organizations first? Answers from a global conversation”
  1. Masood Ul Mulk

    Community driven development and locally led development may not be the same things as is being confused here. Those romanticising community development here seem to believe in the myth of immaculate conception. As if strong community groups grow out of thin air. They forget they need to be reached and nurtured. Does this mean that locally led development acknowledges the role of strong local intermediaries in reaching large community groups or is community development another way of saying that lets by pass strong local intermediaries because they can manage upward accountability and therefore need to be avoided as they become competitors.

    • Courtenay

      Hey Masood – thank you so much for your thoughts. I think we need both. And I don’t think that any of us believe that community groups grow out of thin air – we completely agree with you that they need to be reached and nurtured – Monica’s work at GirlUp is a great initiative that is doing just this…

  2. John Plastow

    Timely to read this on a day when Samantha Power announces 25% of USAID funding going to local actors. Time for more big donors to find a way around the self-imposed tangle of compliance that is preventing the channeling of more resource to southern actors. Interesting to see growing recognition of lived experience from part of the donor community too. Important too to think about what kind of funding. No more of the instrumentalising of assistance. It has to be real partnership based resource transfer which means looking at overheads and the real cost of making change happen

  3. Theda V.

    Very important points are raised in this article. I think a lot about power and power dynamics between humans and how this advance or restrain any kind of progress in our society. I observe that on a daily basis between friends, within a family, between students and professors, employees and employers and lastly, in politics. I always wonder what ideas, progresses and projects are not being shared or executed because of power dynamics.
    Power dynamics is a tool and a behavior that is essential and very dangerous at the same time. In any interaction – especially human interactions – power controls the development of a conversation, action, shape of any kind of process, engagement with others and guidance. In order to succeed and move forward in development processes of any kind, it is important to have someone leading a group or a project. But power dynamics can make processes also way more complicated and intimidate and restrict people in sharing their ideas and believes. Therefore, we should always be aware and carefully reflect the dynamics while engaging in the field of sustainable development practice.

    How can we help people who are not able to reach their goals by themselves without someone or us taking over power of their actions? How can we support these communities who do not have the resources to evolve, create and sustain their standard of living, without patronize or causing power dynamics, which could restrict any kind of evolvement? I think community driven development is definitely a good approach to enhance sustainable development reacting directly to the needs and visions shared by themselves.

    • Courtenay

      These are great thoughts Theda – thank you for leaving this comment. Just because something is local doesn’t mean it doesn’t have power imbalances – so we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can ensure that the most marginalized in a community have influence and power alongside the more traditional power holders.

  4. Julian Peach

    Is the world really at an “inflection point”? The power structures seem the same. To reduce the proportion of administrative spend and to increase political control, the official aid sector has centralised procurement and programme oversight in the last 30 years reducing opportunities to support good local ideas, people and institutions. Without greater personal accountability for civil servants for long-term quality, most aid will continue to be about spend at least risk.

    • Courtenay

      Its a great question. I personally believe that we are at an inflection point – for a variety of very specific structural reasons that have started to shift. One of the biggest ones is exactly what you allude to – that the risk framing has fundamentally changed with COVID.

  5. Selena Chavez

    I find it disappointing, though not surprising or shocking, that only 5 % of Official Development Assistance goes directly to local communities. This makes me wonder- why are communities not trusted to be directly given more of the plethora of funding available in International Development? Monica Nyiraguhabwa makes an excellent point about the disempowering and transactional nature of philanthropy, that upholds traditional power structures and excludes the recipients of resources from meaningful conversations. While Locally Led Development at USAID seems to promise more equal relationships between actors, bureaucratic methods that enforce compliance, regulation, and funding limits the ability for real LLD to be realized. Communities are the experts of their own challenges- they know what they need (which is often resources) and have creative capacity to collaborate with INGO’s, government agencies, and donors to form programs, processes, and accountability structures . The call for “open and honest conservations” for locally led development is critical- and needs to seriously examine how power and resources can be distributed to honor and trust communities.

    • Courtenay

      Thank you so much for this point Selena. I think there are specific structural reasons that have stopped more of this from happening – at least that is part of the problem and one that we have been seeking to address. But its the tip of the iceberg and we really need a sea-change in how we approach intl work.

  6. Gabriel

    Good food for thought. The adjustments on aid, specially from big donors, are necessary and overdue. Kudos on having frontline leaders as protagonist – this incipient trend we can see on the international development blogosphere is only the first step in a maybe infinite ladder towards true recognition and tangible impact. However, there were few concrete propositions for reforming it. Another step can be to have the very beneficiaries at the table, including them in the grantmaking process and pitching in at the resource allocation. Maybe aid can come with no (or less) strings attached – which is why I take the pledge of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation for 25% of donations going directly to local and refugee-led organizations. What are the conditions attached to this resource and does it affect the way local orgs are doing their work?
    It is also important to discuss the limits of foreign aid in developing countries in both terms of impact and as a vehicle to foster development. And I throw it to my fellow readers that commented earlier: Can aid perpetuate or prolong a countries’ condition of in development?

    • Courtenay

      Wow these are great thoughts and I feel like I need a lot of pages to put down some of my own in return. Couldn’t agree more – and I think if this was easy we would have solved this long ago. But agree that we need to think more about the limited of foreign aid – how it helps and how it hinders – and really lean into community mobilization across all fronts. I actually do think that there are numerous concrete propositions for reforming the system – there is a lot of working ongoing on a lot of fronts… But it does sometimes feel like changing the course of an ocean liner – it will take time – and shifting power, funding and process on numerous fronts will be needed.

  7. Diana

    Here I am talking about local managers of aid programmes. We have learned in the last decade that some forms of development programming are more effective than others, yet many of our local partners are not trained in the new programming. Instead, they have not had the training of international staff and are under prepared to take over project planning in a way that will promote more successful outcomes than in previous years. Nor have they been given sufficient experience in managing funds, M&E, reporting etc. This is not all local staff of course, but you need to build up a large cadre of local people to manage programmes, who are familiar with TWP and adaptive programming, and with an awareness of all the new thinking and projects that have gone on globally which internationals have been exposed to via Zoom meetings etc. Further, expats working in country are generally immune to pressure from governments and local society, but that is not the case for local staff. This may affect the way they function as aid managers, even when they are meant to be working independently of their host government. Some thought must be given to how to help insulate (and protect) them from these influences.

    • Courtenay

      I think we also need to reframe how we think about our expertise as international staff – while we may have more exposure to training and intl best practice on M&E etc, we have no expertise whatsoever in terms of the lived experience of those who face conflict, etc. So I think it might be helpful to reframe the conversation around how little experience we have in understanding realities on the ground, cultural context, etc. I would also push back against the idea that local staff are less immune to pressure from govt – I have seen plenty of examples with both intl and local staff where these issues are present.

  8. Florence Okumu

    Good discussion here. The ‘localization’ debate has been going on for way too long. To borrow from your words, the biggest takeaway always boils down to donors and partners not working together to collaboratively develop practical solutions that can move beyond rhetoric. I think we don’t see any progress because there’s just no interest or genuine political will to give up power (so as to empower locals); that’s why we keep having the same discussion over and over. The world is experiencing unprecedented levels of all kinds of crises from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change effects, conflicts, refugee influxes etc. If the devastating impacts of these events to our communities isn’t evidence enough that it can longer be BAU, I don’t know what is. The development sector must be open to change and adjust tact both at strategic and operational levels to align with new realities; we either adapt… help each other to adapt or we will perish together.

  9. Courtenay

    Great comment! And I think COVID has definitely helped to show how incredibly we are all interlinked with each other. I think its too broad brush to saw that there is no interest to give up power – many of the organizations that I work with are huge organizations – and there are whole cadres of people who want to give up power and change the system, but who are fighting battles to create change from the inside out. So I actually think there is a lot of energy being put into this – and I have seen how COVID has really changed the conversation around local action – so I hope its a time for substantive change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *