Part 2: Illuminating the Rhetoric-Reality Gap: What Really Counts as Locally-Led Development?

5/2020 | Ann Hendrix-Jenkins



In the first part of this series, I made the case that the international aid sector recognizes the value of “locally-led development” but has yet to meaningfully roll it out. Here I consider how we need to change our mindsets – and our ways of working – to tap that potential.

A growing critique of the Western mindset (and its international aid models) is that it is driven by capitalist assumptions that don’t encompass the whole human experience. Because the West has successfully produced vast material wealth, we over rely on business models. These frames have produced profitable companies and products, but are not appropriate to produce transformative, inclusive social change. In contrast, today’s capitalist models produce growing global inequities and environmental catastrophe. How should we seek inclusive well-being for all? We can start with a few basic premises, based on a growing body evidence from examples of successful transformational social change.

Start with listening. Then co-create solutions.

Mauricio Lim Miller grew up in poverty in the United States, dedicated decades to social work, and concluded that common beliefs about poverty, and its alleviation, are actually backwards. He pioneered new approaches and groundbreaking advocacy (for which he received a MacArthur Genius Award among many others). In his book The Alternative: Most of what you believe about poverty is wrong, Lim presents his basic premise:

To get positive change… outsiders must first recognize the thousands of right things that people are doing for themselves. Those are the changes most likely to grow and sustain in the long term. The policy-makers, non-profits, and funders must learn how to learn from the people themselves. Find out first what people are already doing for themselves and keep those efforts central.

How does Lim’s premise apply to international aid?

Lim’s proposition contradicts many ‘best practices’ in international development. To shed light on this, we can start by asking ourselves: Was the intervention concept/framing/objective/theory of change – and the budget and work plan – already generated before meaningful local engagement began? If the answer is yes, the prospects for authentic engagement, localization, and likely sustainability, are already poor.

People living in extreme poverty have been undermined by multigenerational poverty, a history of top-down development efforts, unresponsive government, harsh conditions, or some combination thereof. As a result, they are hampered by weakened individual and collective capacities to envision change and assert voice and agency. When the aid community arrives with a ready-made solution or specific sectoral focus, and oversees and even performs most of the work ourselves, whatever progress is made often quickly evaporates when the project ends. When “development” is externally imposed, it doesn’t matter how proven an idea or well-credentialed expertise is. My colleague, Rowlands Kaotcha, Vice President of The Hunger Project, likens this “solution imposition” to downloading a new app onto an old operating system. If the “operating system” of empowered local mindset, voice, agency, and dignity aren’t there, the new app (development project) won’t work.

Transformation change happens socially, collectively

Another blind spot in the Western mindset is the lack of recognition that large-scale change happens collectively and socially, which is more than the accumulation of individuals’ behaviors. The evidence from around the world is clear: systems are where change happens. Social systems, government systems, economic systems, ecosystems – if those aren’t changed, or even transformed, progress will be hampered and short-lived. The majority of cultures around the world are collectivist, but too many Western-conceived efforts, biased toward individual change, often fail to recognize or leverage that.

One way community-led development advocates are learning to foster systemic change is through the Collective Impact model, including The Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact 3.0, which focuses on the social movement as the platform for change.

I have found the Collective Impact model and evidence to be useful for differentiating between two areas that are often muddled together: focusing on systemic social change versus employing specific tools to tinker with systems. For example, human-centered design (HCD), which emerged from the field of consumer product design, has revolutionized the way we perform international aid work. However, HCD is a tool, not a social change framework. In the international aid context, HCD is often employed as an extractive research method for tweaking program design.

But tweaking a top-down program is different than fostering systemic, participatory change.

I created this graphic to differentiate between engagement mechanisms and the levels they can support overarching social change. All of these tools have been used to meaningful ends, but it’s important to distinguish among them – and the context within which they are employed.


Signs of change

During the recent launch of a new international development project in rural Zambia, I experienced two vivid moments. One was a comment from Rowlands, my wise colleague. He felt hopeful that the new project would go well, because this poor community was so off the beaten path they “hadn’t been polluted by previous projects.” Recalling troubled scenarios he had seen over the years, in this case, the implementers wouldn’t have to deal with what one of my development professors called “the wreckage of past projects.”

The second moment brought tears to my eyes. Imagine a picturesque rural field filled with hundreds of community members, visiting dignitaries, government staff, international visitors, a brass band, and traditional dancers. In the middle is the shining new project sign. Its festive ribbons dramatically cut by the local chief, the district council head, and the donor representative. Written on the sign isn’t the usual “Future home of a [water/health/agriculture/other sector] project.” What it says is simply this: “Community-led Development Project.”

The community would decide.

In international development, we have much to offer – and much to learn about how locally-led development can enable meaningful and sustainable change. We are getting better at partnering with communities and their governments, traditional leaders, the private sector, and others. We are learning how to address complexity and adapt. We know quality facilitation is indispensable to collective transformation. We know voice, agency, and dignity are touchstones that underlie it all.

Let’s ask ourselves honestly, every day, if we are living up to these truths, and how we can do better.

Photographs and graphics from top to bottom: Graphic 1: When transformation is the goal. Graphic Credit: Ann Hendrix-Jenkins. Photo 2: Community-Led Development Project Photo Credit: Ann Hendrix-Jenkins.

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.  

About the author

Ann Hendrix-Jenkins has worked in international development for 30+ years, as a facilitator, capacity development specialist, researcher, manager, finance & budget manager, and a little of everything else. She has worked on pandemic preparedness, HIV, TB, women and children’s health, community development, social and behavior change, and integrated approaches. Ann considers her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Botswana as her best teacher—where she stumbled across what is the most powerful aspect of development: authentic engagement, based in mutuality and creativity. (And with some food and a few good laughs thrown in). She is inspired by what she has witnessed along the way: what people and groups are capable of, anywhere in the world, when they are able step up and come together to change their worlds.