Local Leadership: Is it now or never?

4/2020 | Sarah Cechvala

Local is today’s reality


The view from my tiny home office is of my neighborhood community center. It is a view that I hardly noticed before the days of the Coronavirus, social-distancing, and shelter-in-place. It was a view of little significance as I spent my time jetting off to locations overseas to ensure aid organizations were taking local priorities seriously. But now, as I am tied to my desk, in my small apartment, in my neighborhood in Boston, it is all that I can see. 

COVID-19 has fundamentally redefined the way we see the world. As rapidly as it has altered our daily lives, it has also disrupted our ability to affect change outside of our own community, let alone outside of our own country. Today it feels almost unimaginable to hop on a plane to help others going through this crisis, which offers a firm reminder of my relative place of privilege to do so. Further, as a consequence, I increasingly feel powerless in my ability to support others, as my sphere of influence has been limited to and defined by my own physical surroundings.

With humanitarian colleagues either turning an eye towards home or prohibited from traveling afar, we are witnessing an unanticipated but emphatic shift in power and responsibility to ‘local’ actors – who lead response efforts in their communities. Locally-led humanitarian response has a completely different meaning now than it did even a month ago. Debates about definitions, policies, and funding structures feel less urgent now in the face of unprecedented global loss of life and livelihoods, where action will occur out of necessity, regardless of the support of international donors and actors. Inherently, this global pandemic is forcing the rigid hand of the humanitarian system. It is applying enormous pressure across an aid architecture that has, for decades, resisted and battled against such change.

And so I wonder, what will be our collective response? In the time of COVID-19, “localization” is no longer a policy-level debate with little practical action or application. It is an essential reality. A reality that is likely here to stay.


Not new concepts, rather, new opportunities


The impact of greater local leadership cannot be understated. Lessons from CDA’s work with the International Federation of the Red Cross (1) highlight that, “effective leaders do not just work within a system, rather they help to shape the systems they work with…” (2) Much like doctors with their stethoscopes, local actors and leaders have their ears on the pulse of the internal workings of the communities – where they not only work, but also live. And so they are often able to diagnose the acute needs more rapidly and with greater precision. Of course as with anything, there are shortcomings that come with greater power and authority for local actors. Not to mention the deluge of problems with the term ‘local’ itself. However, as a sector, if we are committed to change than we need to ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’ – and embrace the new set of challenges, because they are our new reality. 


Value of Local Leadership in Practice

Africa RoadmapOne quite memorable example of local leadership in practice was in rural Sudan, where the local Sudanese Red Crescent (SRCS) Branch Manager – a local community leader – realized issues in accessing vulnerable females in a culturally conservative community had less to do with the services being offered and more to do with the need to foster greater trust and confidence amongst the organization and the community. He explained, “We had a sense of what the community needed before, but now we are accountable to them. Now the community is a partner to us.” By taking the time to listen, the SRCS – a local actor – was able to carefully design their interventions to engage with women who were largely confined to the home. Women in this community noted how the SRCS had provided them with first aid and home nursing training in their own homes, which directly responded to a need for health services. As a result of the trust built between the SRCS  and the community, women now call female volunteers freely when they have questions or need additional support.

For more see: IFRC and CDA. 2019. “Closing the Gap: A Strategy to Strengthen Community Engagement and Accountability in Africa.”


Calls to shift the aid paradigm towards something more locally-oriented, designed, and led are not novel. Evidence from CDA Collaborative Learning, along with many of our colleagues and partners (3) over the years, demonstrates the need to reorient the aid architecture to intentionally place local people and organizations at the center of the response.

Commitment to change has been echoed in studies and calls across sectors – from the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding fields alike. Yet, the increased interest and enthusiasm across these global communities have been met with countless technical, philosophical, and structural challenges, which has slowed the pace of change. Further, much of the discourse has remained just that: discourse, at the policy-level across international headquarters in Geneva, Washington, DC, London, and other northern/western countries. And worse, these discussions often woefully neglect direct participation and perspectives of those the whole agenda is supposed to be about: local leaders and civic organizations closest to the challenges of communities.


Time for new perspectives


Systemic change requires thoughtful listening to diverse experiences and perspectives. CDA’s maxim is: “Listening is a value…we should ‘take a deep breath’ in the midst of our reporting and funding deadlines. We should, in short, listen to what people say. To do so is fascinating; it is also helpful. And it is the responsible and respectful thing to do.” (4)

So, in the spirit of meaningfully listening to inform action, CDA launches a new virtual learning forum: From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid. In this blog series we will share the viewpoints of others on the frontlines of the localization agenda – those who are seeking to foster locally-driven systematic change. Our hope is to infuse this conversation with a fresh set of perspectives, opportunities, and challenges. Each week, we will create a space to help bring these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront.

We are asking partners working on these issues in their own contexts, as well as those seeking system-wide shifts in power, to contribute their perspectives about what works, what doesn’t, what questions should we be asking, and what changes do we, as a community, need to make?

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so, perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts? This collaborative learning effort will thus grow the evidence base for practitioners and policymakers so that actions can be derived from greater confidence, conviction, and understanding.

Perhaps a silver lining to this dark moment in human history can be the shedding of harmful  norms, preconceived notions, fears of change, and an unwillingness to be inventive. While COVID-19 has many of us tied to our homes, let’s take this opportunity to bear witness to the tremendous power and opportunity of our colleagues working on the frontlines in their own communities and not return to our previously worn paths – paths defined by the top, by a reluctance to devolve power, or by structural intolerance.

And in this incredible moment let’s see: “Can a field of change agents change itself?” (5)

And when we return to some sense of normalcy (whenever that may be), I hope we see new pathways, marked by lessons learned, good practice, honest failures, and readiness for fundamental and systematic change. Because realistically, if not now, then never.





  1. For more see: All the evidence you need –  https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/document/all-the-evidence-we-need/; Closing the Gap – https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/document/closing-gap-strategy-strengthen-community-engagement-accountability-africa/; and Mainstreaming of Accountability to Communities – http://www.cdacollaborative.org/publication/mainstreaming-of-accountability-to-communities-an-operational-case-study/ 
  2. IFRC and CDA. 2019. “Change is in the Hands of Leaders.” Briefing note. https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2019/11/Brief3-Change-is-the-Hands-of-Leaders.pdf
  3. Such as Ground Trust Solutions, the CDAC Network, CHSAlliance, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, Accountability Lab, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, among many others.
  4. Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Isabella Jean. 2012. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects: p. 147.
  5. Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Isabella Jean. 2012. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects: p. 146.

Sarah Cechvala, Senior Associate

About this article

If you are interested in contributing to our “From Where I Stand blog series, please contact Becca Fogel at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

We would also like to highlight others in our global community who have put forth similar reflections through blogs and reports, Many of these offer brilliant reflections of this current moment and the need to shift power and response efforts to those on the frontlines. Below are just some of our favorites!

About the author

Sarah Cechvala

Sarah Cechvala is an experienced researcher and facilitator with expertise in aid accountability, systems analysis, and conflict sensitive business practice. With over 10 years of experience, she has conducted field research in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; and specializes in community engagement and organizational behavior change through systems analysis.

Sarah has worked with corporate practitioners and communities in fragile and conflict affected states in order to enhance company-community relations and to strengthen corporate social performance management systems. She has also advised INGOs, UN Agencies, bi-lateral donors, and national and local organizations in the humanitarian sector on strengthening institutional practices towards greater accountability to affected communities, enhanced feedback utilization practices, and efforts focused on community ownership and ‘local’ leadership.

Sarah is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Olso Centre for Development and the Environment where her research examines the agency of the private sector in peace and conflict through systems analysis; which is part of the UrbanSME project, which is funded by the Research Council of Norway. Sarah worked on responsible business and aid accountability at CDA from 2013-2021.