Localization: It’s about Taking the Leadership Journey Together

4/2020 | Pauline Wambeti

I am the Director of an organisation called Nuru Kenya. We, as a locally led organisation, are especially exposed to the effects of the constantly changing social, legal, economic, and political environments we operate in. We have to be vigilant to remain relevant locally, attractive to funders and politically ‘aligned’. The pressure to please donors, authorities, and community members can be overwhelming and can lead to mission creep or organisational collapse. As a leader in a locally -led organisation, I have come to value Nuru International’s role as first and foremost a committed mentor, not just as funders. These ‘mentors’ wade through the ‘mucky waters’ with us. They are genuinely interested in building our capacity to make wise decisions and not simply whether we ‘spend their money according to their plans’. This is a story of taking this journey together.

In the beginning…

When I began my career in the development field, I focused only on delivering the outputs of projects that had been planned by the funders. There was no room for change in plans. Everything was well thought out, timed, budgeted, and the expected results outlined.

I worked mechanically. I interpreted localisation to mean:

  • Local organisations would defer to the rules and regulations of international organisations.
  • Local organisations would implement the agenda of international organisations.
  • Local organisations would need to maneuver bureaucracies and meet donor requirements.
  • Local organisations had to spend down donor funding.

Be bold enough

Then I took over an expatriate-led intervention. The expats knew they would relinquish control of the intervention at some point. When we took over, we struggled to fit into their roles. We worked with the tools they left behind.

However, after a while, we realised we needed to change. The tools were not suited for us. We explored local tools and there was progress. We did not have to continue to struggle to impress them by using their methods with few results. We were bold enough to bring about change that was meaningful and impactful. It is important to provide room for the local teams and communities to design their solutions and make choices. And the local implementing teams needed to competently negotiate for space at the decision-making table.

I often heard concepts of replication and scaling of best practices, cost-effective approaches, and evidence-based interventions. I now know the story of development is different for every community. The majority of these practices began as unique ideas of a struggling community that were bold enough to take on their challenges, document their struggles, and celebrate their achievements. When funders impose these ‘best practices’ on other communities, they stifle innovation and creativity. They implement a foreigner’s success story in a clueless and disinterested community, and the community ends up disillusioned.

Local leaders to drive local solutions

At Nuru, we are challenging ourselves to ‘end extreme poverty, one community at a time’. Many have questioned the approach. I questioned this mission too when I joined the organisation in 2013. After all I had experience in delivering projects at short durations. Six years on, I now know why the emphasis is on one community at a time’.

Nuru Kenya is scaling to another community after ten years. It is not just implementing ‘well thought out’ solutions to extreme poverty. It is about taking the leadership journey together with the community. It means not leaving anyone behind. It involves listening to the slow talking, keeping pace with the slow walking. It means letting others learn to walk, fall and rise again no matter how painful or tedious. It also means challenging the fast learners to be role models. It is always keeping in mind that what works today will not necessarily work tomorrow. It means ensuring that today’s solutions can re-generate and improve in order to solve the problems of tomorrow. It means ensuring the abilities and minds of those who lived the challenges of today shall be committed to create or innovate the solutions of today for the problems of tomorrow. 

It means investing not just in local solutions, but in local leaders because it takes local leaders to drive local solutions. It is not about how to ensure the local communities adhere to rules and regulations. It is about how local communities hold themselves accountable to their development outcomes. It is about facilitating the institutionalisation of systems that foster ownership, transparency and accountability. It is about allowing candid dialogues among the local community members. They know how best to articulate their issues. Development without them is not development for them.

What does it take?

The community should be empowered to invest in their solutions. It is a long process. It requires being there for the community and for longer, both as a donor and mentor. Many funders do not have the patience to stay that long. Many funding opportunities emphasise monitoring burn rates alongside outputs. Short term funding rarely translates into programming that achieves transformation. It involves relinquishing the decision-making and control to those who matter, and supporting them to make meaningful choices; and then holding them accountable. It means allowing growth to happen through learning from failure as well as success. It is viewing local communities as co-investors no matter how little their monetary contribution.

But I wonder…

  • Are donors ready to allow local communities to make decisions about the funding they receive from them?
  • Are donors ready to act on the recurrent issues reiterating the need for locally-led development?
  • Is the target community allowed to interpret what locally-led development means for them or in their context?

How I interpret localisation

Today at Nuru, I interpret localisation as:

  • Creating and sustaining impact with the community.
  • Securing the commitment of local community members to its vision in uncertainty and despite dwindling donor resources.
  • Demonstrating leadership growth and ability to evolve solutions.
  • Renewing donor investment by providing an opportunity for the community to invest in their solutions.

Working at Nuru entails continuously taking the leadership role to the next level. I have learned that my most important role is to grow as a leader. That it is the only way I can grow other leaders.


Photo credit from top to bottom: Photo 1: Nuru farmers undergoing an agricultural training (photo credit: Nuru Kenya). Photo 2: Nuru Kenya with farmer (photo credit: Nuru Kenya from Stopping as Success case study). Photo 3: Nuru farmer in her farm (photo credit: Nuru Kenya).

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA 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. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in 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?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  



The story of Nuru Kenya’s transition from Nuru International, with a particular focus on Pauline’s visionary leadership, can be found in a case study that was developed as part of  Stopping As Success (SAS) project – a joint learning project between CDA Collaborative Learning, Peace Direct, and Search for Common Ground.

SAS is a collaborative learning project that seeks to provide positive examples and guidance for how international development actors can foster locally led development through responsible transitions. SAS has produced 20 case studies of transitions in 13 countries, and 25+ resources and practical tools to inform transition processes for INGOs, NGOs/CSOs and donors. You can find out more about the project and access the resources on the SAS website.

About the author

Pauline Wambeti is the Country Director of Nuru Kenya. Pauline is leading her organization to end extreme poverty with the philosophy of “not waiting for other people to make the changes for us, but to make the changes ourselves.”  She has over 15 years extensive experience in Community Development. Before joining Nuru Kenya in September 2013, Pauline worked for the United Nations Environment Programme at the Regional office for Africa in Nairobi. Pauline was also a Programme Officer for the National Organization for Peer Educators; a Business Development Officer for K-Rep Bank Ltd; and a Program Facilitator for Doctors of the World. Pauline has a BA in Community Development and is pursuing Masters programs in Development Studies and Project Management.