This article was originally published on Devex.
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Recent times have seen a steep rise in conversations about embracing or advancing the locally led development agenda, as well as an increase in relevant changes to policy and strategy. My new position as the director of locally led development at Humentum is one of the visible manifestations of this shift.
As with most global development approaches, there are varying voices, positions, and explanations for what it means and how to implement it practically.
Starting with the individual
Locally led development is a deeply personal subject. I can trace this back to when I was in high school in 1995, a year before going to college. Until then, I had never stopped to think about my housing situation and living conditions in the high-density area of Mkoba, located in the Zimbabwean city of Gweru.
A one-bedroom, semidetached house held a kitchen, lounge, spare room, and space where I could study while everyone was sleeping. It was — and still is — not uncommon to have a family of four to six people and a stream of visiting relatives sharing 40 square meters (430 square feet) in a two-room house on approximately 110 square meters of land. This includes sharing a toilet and shower with another family of a similar size in the duplex.
I remember wondering why anyone in their right mind who knows about family size and cultural practices in Zimbabwe would make such a house. I recall thinking about the practical things I would tell the builders to add if they had asked me or anyone else who lived like this. This curiosity stayed with me until I undertook Ph.D. thesis research to explore what shaped historical urban policy and the role of the people who had to live with its outcomes.
I learned that I had lived with the consequences of colonial decisions regarding the type of housing that African people could have in urban areas. Family needs and gender dynamics were not considered, nor were they contextually or culturally relevant.
My lived reality is a microcosm of what locally led development is about. It means recognizing that development architecture, its machinery, and its ways of doing business are rooted in colonialism and driven by factors that should no longer hold.
Unfortunately, due to the unequal power relationship between high- and lower-income countries, these still prevail today. Locally led development is about finally questioning and mobilizing actions that transform how we pursue development work.
Locally led development in practice
The working definition I use to describe locally led development is that it’s broadly about decolonizing aid, shifting power, and transforming unequal power relations. It’s a way of undertaking development that ensures the people affected, impacted, or experiencing challenges are at the center of all response agendas, decision-making, processes, and actions.
As a feminist, I believe it’s also about understanding that men and women experience these challenges differently, as do other marginalized groups. To that end, current and future approaches should reflect these kinds of intersections.
Operationalizing locally led development occurs in many ways, and as more organizations and institutions step forward, numerous lessons will be learned in the process. From my experience, three things represent locally led development: partnerships, amplifying and strengthening local capacity and knowledge, and the transformation of institutions that advocate for it.
Locally led development is about finally questioning and mobilizing actions that transform how we pursue development work.
In 2006, I started my global development career as an international technical adviser for women’s rights. During this time, I facilitated participatory vulnerability analysis community processes using a gender lens in Burundi, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Senegal, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, among other countries.
While I did fly into all these countries as a person who held specific knowledge and expertise, my stance always remained the same: Local actors should take the lead in facilitating the participatory community process of identifying their challenges, defining solutions, and working in partnership with national NGOs to deliver solutions. My role as an outsider was to consult, learn, contextualize tools, facilitate training, and accompany the process as required.
I started with 10 days of training in each country, with tools designed to surface the local and global root causes of poverty, gender inequality, and unsustainable resource use, as well as the different types of power that reinforced the challenges people faced. Solutions were contextually relevant and owned as communities defined them, and they then organized themselves to push for the change they wanted to see.
In Senegal, I witnessed how smallholder farmers organized themselves to fight for control over food sources, produce prices, and land for women, Indigenous peoples, and other excluded groups. Work undertaken with women in Malawi, which contributed to the formation of the Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS, is another example of the value of supporting local actors to set the agenda, develop solutions, and work in partnership.
In Kenya, local groups and networks were already working to end violence against women. I remember wondering if I could add value; they reassured me that what I knew from other countries could enrich their strategies and that I could use what I learned from them to help others.
This last point also illustrates how locally led development does not negate the role of other development actors. A shift in thinking, approaches, strategy, resource flows, and accountability is critical to ensuring local actors and leaders are the primary drivers of their own development solutions. It should be a partnership rather than a zero-sum game of not wanting other development actors at all.
Driving the agenda forward at Humentum
Finally, locally led development is a deep transformation agenda that should center on personal, institutional, and system change. At Humentum, it’s both an internal and external process, guided by a commitment to equity. Our equity principles are that we are willing to learn, adapt, and stay open to discomfort; we keep equity at the forefront of all our actions and conversations; we acknowledge individual and collective power and use it for transformation; and we strive to be humble and own our mistakes.
To truly realize the vision of locally led development, protagonists must focus on self-transformation and “walking the talk.” Humentum is committed to this, which is the reason for my role and ultimately why I joined. As we take the next steps on this journey, let’s do it together.
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