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When We Talk About Locally Led Development, We Need to Talk About Data Ownership

Photo of a Nigerian man smiling while pointing to a poster containing project data

Tom Saatar for RTI International

Locally led development is the buzzword of the day in international development, and skeptics are right to question its staying power. With many well-intentioned past initiatives yet few meaningful and lasting changes, fatigue and wariness have set in.

As someone who has worked in international development for over two decades – particularly on this topic – I’ll admit I’ve been a skeptic, too. But these days, I’m feeling genuinely optimistic. USAID’s emphasis on shifting power, not just resources, and “nothing about us without us” approach is slowly changing norms about how local actors are consulted and involved in the development of their own countries. USAID and international implementing partners seem ready to start listening, and fundamental changes are beginning to emerge.

One area that gets little attention but could make a big impact in shifting power to local actors is data ownership. It was one of a handful of topics discussed by local partners at the RTI-sponsored "Local Insights Driving Impact" event in Kenya in May 2023.

Listening and learning from local actors

This was the first time I had been to a large gathering after the isolation of COVID-19, especially one where participants were almost exclusively local (86%). Our intent was to hear and learn from them directly. This wasn’t a splashy PR affair where international contractors opine on solutions for those that they serve and hype up their own success. In fact, no one from RTI presented at the event. The conversations were interactive, organic, and candid. Over two days, participants highlighted the bright spots and lingering challenges in development and what implementers like RTI could do better to support them.

In some ways, the key takeaways were predictable. To me, that makes them all the more important to listen to:

  • On institutional sustainability: Donor-funded projects tend to lack investment in long-term institutional sustainability and focus myopically on donor requirements.
  • On peer-to-peer learning: It can be a game-changer for boosting organizational capacity but requires intentionality, time, and resources that are often not baked into project design.
  • On private sector solutions: The private sector can complement donor funding in important ways, though identifying return on investment can be challenging.
  • On gender equity and social inclusion (GESI): GESI is a critical part of supporting inclusive development but a lack of adequate skills, time, and funding to successfully integrate GESI approaches into project design and execute on them continues to be a challenge.
  • On local ownership of data: Data is typically not locally owned or driven, but there is a strong desire to engage more in this area.

A growing desire and need for local ownership of data

Of all the topics, this last one piqued my interest most. Even at RTI, a research institute, we don’t often connect data and locally led development. Like most organizations, we tend to think and talk about locally led development in terms of implementation of activities but neglect this important aspect.

Data matters. It empowers people to act. It drives decisions. The power that local actors gain from collecting, analyzing, and using data helps them own the development process and realize the vision of locally led development more fully.

What struck me in the conversations about data at the event was that local organizations understand this deeply and are eager to drive the process. They don’t want to be mere consumers of data that is collected by international partners or government agencies. They want to have a say in what data is collected in the first place, how it is collected, and how it is analyzed and disseminated.

Shifting how we work to prioritize local data ownership 

Decisions around what data gets collected during a project and associated targets are often determined at the proposal stage, requiring greater effort on the part of international implementing partners to involve local organizations at this stage. In the mad rush to develop a proposal, monitoring, evaluation, and learning plans can feel like an after-thought but should be a vital part of co-creation.

One participant at the event commented that “encouraging organizational cultures that are ‘data curious’ can be an important way to support locally owned data.” Promoting local actors as data stewards from project inception will help foster a culture of data and activity ownership, deepen their understanding of impact and the necessary adaptations during implementation, and support their overall ability to advocate for change. Many participants also spoke about a greater need for data literacy, including strengthening the organizational capacity of local actors to disaggregate, analyze, and use data (for example, learning how to present data in user-friendly ways for advocacy purposes). 

Connecting data points across sectors and finding ways to aggregate and share data is also important. One participant, Mercy Kirui from eKitabu, commented on this in her blog following the event, noting that “organizations often compete for data, with little incentive to release data collected despite the significant value that it has for informing decision-making.” Participants noted the utility of centralizing data so that they can better understand the bigger picture and how outcomes are connected. Data aggregation at larger levels (not just at the project level) could enable collection of cross-sectoral data and reveal interesting connections.

Because few countries do this, greater intentionality by international implementers to support this would benefit local actors and bring government and civil society together around data efforts. Some participants also stressed the need for data privacy and protection around sensitive issues, particularly those where governments are hostile towards LGBTQI+ rights, for example.

How can we encourage local data ownership transfer?

So why aren’t we talking more about ownership of local data when we talk about locally led development? In part, I think many international implementers aren’t well versed in data and utilize it more as a reporting mechanism to donors rather than seeking to use it to adapt and strengthen the capacities of local partners. The more important reluctance, however, may have to do with power. Many international implementers aren’t comfortable handing the ownership of data over to others. Data is power, and that can make it difficult to let go of and shift to playing a supporting role.

After hearing the hunger for data ownership that local organizations have and reflecting more deeply about what it means to own data, it seems more than just important: it is fundamental to locally led development. Every international partner deals with data when implementing a project, and we can do more to use this position to shift power to local actors.

At RTI, our motto is “turning knowledge into practice,” and nothing enables us to do this better than by helping our local partners drive and own data for their own development. In a recent blog, we shared a framework for empowering local communities with locally led monitoring, evaluation, research, learning and adapting.

I’m hopeful that after listening to our local partners at this event (and continuing to do so), we can do our part and begin the hard work of putting this into practice. USAID may have helped move the needle by making locally led development a priority, but international implementers have a pivotal role to play in this process. At RTI, we are dedicated to our journey and making progress to prioritize locally led development through some serious institutional commitments. For the first time in a long while, I’m feeling less skeptical and more optimistic about the road ahead.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Nicole Jacobs (Director, Training, Knowledge Management, and Quality) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.