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How Global Organizations Can Support Locally Led Development

This piece was first published by Devex on June 22, 2023.

By taking concrete steps to evolve our role and shift power to local groups, global development organizations can be a positive force in locally led development. At the international NGO (non-governmental organization) where I work, we are learning that it takes internal transformation, aligning practice with purpose, and being an active listener — all backed by commitments and targets — to make these changes.

For international development to be effective and relevant in a changing, multipolar world, it must transform.

USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, under Administrator Samantha Power, has become a leading force in transforming the field by focusing on locally led development. Building on past U.S. administrations’ initiatives, the underlying theme has been consistent: Put local groups in the lead of their own development. This time feels different, however, as Power and USAID have increased the emphasis, upped the urgency, and made concrete plans and targets.

Many of today’s global challenges, like climate change and pandemic prevention, require collective action. This makes locally led development even more urgent as a critical element of achieving meaningful and sustainable results. Yet the long-standing norms of who designs and delivers development programs, rooted in colonialism, remain entrenched and hinder progress.

This is something I think about a lot as chair of the Advisory Committee for Voluntary Foreign Aid, or ACVFA, a committee of representatives from the private sector, academia, and development organizations that advises USAID and its administrator on critical development matters. As we work to empower local organizations and communities, one important piece ACVFA has been grappling with is the proper role of global development organizations in locally led development.

While some may believe that there is no longer a role for such organizations often based in the United States or Europe, I see it differently. Global organizations can play a powerful role in cross-pollinating ideas across geographies, working across sectors and interests to address challenges holistically, and facilitating greater involvement and capacity of local groups, thereby speeding progress on locally led development. This isn’t just the right thing to do; it also yields more sustainable development outcomes.

It's exciting to see many global development organizations committed to making localization work. Now we must figure out how to operationalize it at scale by institutionalizing the changes it requires — which won’t be easy. I know this well as the head of international development at RTI International, a global research institute and one of USAID’s largest implementing partners.  

For the past several years, RTI has been on a journey to define what our role is in decolonizing foreign aid and advancing locally led development. While our work has long supported local capacity and engaged local partners, a true pivot to locally led development has required us to stretch as an organization and think carefully about what value we bring.

This process has led us to three major insights on how global development organizations, especially INGOs like RTI, can add value and play their part in shifting power to the communities closest to development challenges. I share these not to say we have it fully figured out. On the contrary, we are humbled by the challenge and are on a learning journey to pivot and improve. I hope our experience can inform and embolden other organizations to take similarly difficult but worthwhile action.

1. Transform internally to shift power externally

Our journey started with a focus on getting our internal house in order, propelled by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed. RTI, like many of our peers, began to turn discussions of disparities and discrimination, which we regularly have about the countries we work in, inward — on our own society, institutions, and workplaces in the United States.

These conversations led us to clearly define what equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging mean at RTI and how we could put our core value of respect for the individual more meaningfully into practice. Reflection on our power and privilege as an INGO, and what that means for how we show up in local communities, has been key. We developed a new “Decolonizing Development” training and related learning activities as avenues for all RTI U.S.-based international development staff to reflect and grow so we can, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, do better because we know better. The training and, more importantly, the authentic conversations they’re spurring, are helping us practice greater mutuality and reciprocity with local groups, including treating these partners as equals, to promote a shift in power.

Representation at all levels matters too, so we’re shifting our core international development staffing to prioritize local knowledge and lived experience, with new staff members from Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Guatemala, Indonesia, the Philippines, and more, paving the way for more staff from the countries we work in to join our long-term, global workforce. This is particularly important for the projects we implement, where we commit that by 2025, 90% of our project leadership will hail from the countries and regions where our projects are based, and call on USAID to support this through flexible solicitation requirements.  

2. Align practice with purpose

While the intention of locally led development is an idea many can get behind, the more difficult work lies in turning sentiments and policies into meaningful action that transforms development and power dynamics.

It requires tough choices and goes beyond just directly funding local organizations. The goal of locally led development can’t be for USAID to become the funder in perpetuity of local organizations. The future we seek is one of concrete development results where the lives of those living in poverty and of the marginalized are measurably improved.

That requires true partnership, where local groups lead their own development and can tap into the expertise and capabilities of global organizations when needed. To get there, we’re dedicating substantial and increasing portions of project funding to local groups and co-developing and co-implementing solutions with them on all projects, with RTI playing a supporting role as a facilitator, convener, connector, and provider of technical expertise based on our scientific knowledge and global experience.

We’re also shifting to co-design and co-implement with local partners with the more than $1 million we invest annually in independent research and development. In Kenya, for example, we co-developed a research project with Strathmore University to evaluate the skills and policies needed for the country’s green economy transition.

3. Be a listener, not just a learner

Global development organizations are learning organizations; this is something RTI International is proud to be. But to enhance our learning, we need to become experts at listening to local groups. This requires relationship and trust building, which we’re investing in through partnerships beyond those tied to USAID projects.

For example, as the most recent milestone in our 15-year relationship with the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, we co-invested in its new Social Innovation Lab that is building Guatemala’s culture and practice of innovation for social progress. We’ve committed to developing and investing in more long-term partnerships like this for deeper local relationships in more regions of the world.

Last month, we also held a two-day locally led development learning summit in Kenya with 100 local stakeholders from five East African countries, including a day of listening and learning with our local project staff in the region. We commit to hold similar events in other regions over the next two years as we continue our journey to become better listeners, as well as learners, for locally led development.

We must embrace and accept the challenges and risks associated with changing our mindsets and ways of working — and not let them stop us from taking meaningful action to support locally led development.

By seizing this moment to reflect on our power and privilege as large development organizations in the global north and taking meaningful steps to shift our role to one of support and solidarity with local partners, we can advance locally led development and ensure those most affected by increasingly complex development challenges take the lead in charting their own future. This is the best approach to realizing sustainable solutions.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Paul Weisenfeld (Executive Vice President, International Development) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.