INGO actors turn inward to ask: what is the role of INGOs in the localization agenda?

September 9, 2019

In June 2019, Stopping As Success (SAS) team members attended the 2019 Interaction Forum to share findings from their case studies and to share insights from the research during a panel session on, Transitions to locally led development: what is missing from the conversation? In this blog, CDA’s Grace Boone and Peace Direct’s Farzana Ahmed reflect on the session, the discussions that came out of it and the current trend towards localisation within the aid sector.

At the InterAction Forum 2019, the SAS team shared a panel with World Vision, Plan International and USAID to critically engage with localization processes; a spectrum of approaches taken by international organizations to support locally led development.

These processes may often be deemed successful, yet continue to be driven by external actors. Essentially, we discussed, to what extent are localization processes locally led?

Sharing experiences for effective transitions

First, we began our discussions with organizational examples of locally led development. Arjun Tasker from USAID’s Office of Local Sustainability shared insights from their Cooperative Development Program (CDP), which works with US businesses to support the capacity of local cooperatives around the globe. CDP supports pre-existing local capacity, without assuming it is working from a blank slate. We also heard from Justin Fugle on Plan International’s experience of transforming their country offices to local NGOs. For Plan International, the process starts with changing the setup of their country teams. Currently, apart from two country directors, all country directors and managers have been replaced by local staff.

The case studies examined by the SAS team demonstrate that there is a much greater chance of achieving sustainable and effective transitions when INGOs focus on transparent relationship building with local entities.

Localization efforts need to go beyond cosmetic and surface-level handovers that only appear at the very end of a project. They should instead include collaborative decision-making right from the very start.

This related to Justin Fugle’s point that localization cannot be ‘faked’ and local organisations should not be treated as instruments of donors, who lack their own priorities and agendas.

Localization efforts need to go beyond cosmetic and surface-level handovers that only appear at the very end of a project. They should instead include collaborative decision-making right from the very start.

Questioning our role, challenging assumptions

Holta Trandafili from World Vision then posed the question: are we at risk of romanticising localization and local actors? This prompted conversations on the diverse nature of local partners and their legitimacy within the local context. However, it was pointed out by Arjun Tasker: “the reason we romanticize localization is because it works”. This spurred discussions on the legitimacy of international actors and the assumption that our role is always helpful.

“We think top-down is the reality and that bottom-up is a fantasy! This is not the case. How often do we return ourselves to the fundamental recognition that people’s own agency is 90% of what’s being done?” – John Coonrod, Executive Director, The Hunger Project

We opened up the floor for conversation among the audience, which was entirely made up of international aid, development and humanitarian actors.

In a discussion about localization, there were no local actors present. This irony was noted in the space and allowed the conversation to take a critical turn, focusing the spotlight inward to ask the INGO community: what is our role in localization? How do our organizations need to evolve in order to shift the current power dynamics?

Key reflections from the Forum

The conversation focused on these sector-shifting questions. Here are the big takeaways:

  • The international aid and development sectors need to shift power from the international to the local, but what does this look like in practice? How do we actively adapt and evolve our organizational structures to create a future that is truly locally led? Justin Fugle at Plan International USA answered: “Our role is to yield the space. Back up – fade out, fade away. Our role was always meant to be temporary.”
  • An aspect of shifting the power means giving money directly to local actors – and trusting them to decide what to do with it. Earlier in the panel, we shared how localization has become about shifting the locus of activities, not necessarily about INGOs letting go of financial control and local actors setting their own agenda. One participant shared an example from the humanitarian sector where 75% of the work was done by local actors, yet they only receive 2% of the direct funding. To this the local actors responded: “We don’t need your capacity building, we need your money.”
  • The INGO community needs psychological shifts to move locally led development forward. As organisations begin to make decisions that shift the power to the local level, mindsets need to change as well. As one participant noted, “How do we pivot even more to shift the power? That is a function of the funding and how it’s managed. There are important systems and controls, but capacity doesn’t begin to build until power comes with the funding. As a sector, we need psychological shifts.”

The conversation was so rich that we actually ran over time. We do not want the momentum of this one-time event to fade. We are curious to hear from you. Where do you see power dynamics show up in your context and how do you think those can be addressed? Find us on social media using #StoppingAsSuccess.