Integrating Local Knowledge in Development Programming

Author: Katharina Anton-Erxleben

Years ago, I was driving back to the office with a local colleague in Uganda. Referring to an event we just attended, she said, “You [Americans] are coming here and destroying our culture.” I asked her why she never challenged our programs during team meetings. Her reply was that she had to put food on the table.

This exchange highlights the cultural tensions inherent in global aid efforts and underscores a deeper issue: the power imbalance between international donors and local communities. It's a familiar narrative where accountability seems tethered more to distant benefactors than the people these initiatives aim to serve.

For decades, the structure of international aid has often relegated local organizations to the sidelines, their voices drowned out by the more dominant narrative of the Global North. This dynamic perpetuates a colonial legacy, where decisions are made, and resources are allocated with little to no consultation from those directly impacted by these programs.

A 2021 study starkly revealed this disconnect, with 85 percent of Global South-based civil society organizations deeming their relationships with international NGOs as unbalanced and not mutually beneficial.

Recognizing the need for change, the development sector has been abuzz with talks of "decolonizing" aid, aiming to shift power back to local hands.

Agencies like USAID have embarked on initiatives such as the New Partnership Initiative (NPI), aspiring to localize leadership and ensure local actors drive a significant portion of programming. Yet, despite these efforts, the question remains: Are we doing enough to truly empower local communities?

The introduction of a new metric by USAID to track local leadership marks a pivotal moment in this journey toward accountability. This metric, developed in collaboration with local organizations, seeks to gauge progress by evaluating the extent to which programs engage directly with local partners, foster effective partnerships, leverage local capacities, and involve communities in their initiatives.

However, the enthusiasm for this new tool is tempered by concerns that it sets the bar too low, risking the perpetuation of superficial engagement rather than fostering meaningful local leadership.

Take, for example, Pulte's SHARE activity, which — through its comprehensive approach to capacity strengthening and local engagement — already surpasses the criteria set by this new metric.

While SHARE represents a step forward, its structure still reflects a system where ultimate decision-making power rests with international entities, raising doubts about the depth of local leadership it achieves.

This leads to a broader question of capacity: What constitutes "sufficient" capacity for local organizations to lead? The current approach often measures capacity through a lens defined by external donors, risking the imposition of foreign standards and overlooking the inherent strengths within local communities.

The dialogue around capacity strengthening needs to shift towards a more equitable exchange, recognizing that knowledge and expertise flow in both directions.

As the development sector grapples with its colonial past and seeks a more just future, some advocate for a radical overhaul of the aid system. While the criticisms are valid, the solution may not be dismantling global solidarity but reimagining it. What if we viewed development assistance not as aid but as reparations, acknowledging historical injustices and working towards a more equitable partnership?

Moving forward, the development community must embrace a more inclusive definition of accountability, which places as much emphasis on the needs and voices of local communities as it does on the expectations of distant donors. This entails consulting with and ceding leadership to local organizations, allowing them to define the parameters of success.

As USAID and other agencies reflect on their practices, the momentum for change is palpable. With a global awakening to social justice, equity, and decolonization, the time is ripe to challenge old paradigms and forge a development sector that truly serves local people.

The journey towards truly locally-led development is fraught with challenges. Still, it is a path worth pursuing, for it promises a future where international aid empowers rather than overshadows and where accountability is, finally, to the right people.