COVID-19 containment measures, including the interruption of international travel and physical distancing, have impacted the international cooperation sector, especially activities encompassing research and consultative missions to the countries of operation. International non-government organizations (INGOs) have found themselves even more reliant on national staff and partners, shouldering the burden of minimizing operational interruptions in an already chronically underfunded environment.
Faced with these apparent barriers – everyone from Global Affairs Canada to larger INGOs and development scholars has begun taking a closer look at a global priority that has remained elusive for over 25 years – the localization agenda. Defined as a “transformational process to recognise, respect, and invest in local and national humanitarian and leadership capacities, to better meet the needs of crisis-affected communities,” localization calls for an effective transformation of our sector – one with normative and operational repercussions. To trace potential ways forward, Cooperation Canada has gathered a diverse panel for a critical discussion on October 14. Didn’t attend? Here’s what you missed.
Localization as a key global governance objective
Localization, as a global objective, is not new. At the turn of the century, global discussions on the future of international cooperation, led by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the United Nations (UN) have recognized the importance of abandoning the ethnocentric and imperialist practices whereby donors and experts from the Global North impose questionable solutions to historically disadvantaged and donor-dependent countries and communities. Strengthened local capacity, context-informed solutions and the national and local ownership of international cooperation projects all call for power shifts towards the communities we strive to serve. This entails equitable collaboration along the entire program cycle, from agenda setting to assessments, program design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
Localization was prominently featured in OECD’s 1996 “sustainable partnership model” suggested in the “Shaping the 21st century” report, as well as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Agenda and the World Bank’s 1999 Comprehensive Development Framework. In Canada, the 2002 policy statement of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) “Canada making a difference in the World” centred localization as a key objective for effective international assistance. More recently, localization has remained prominent in contemporary global frameworks, including the Grand Bargain of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda 2030).
Localization as an elusive objective
Despite the overwhelming policy relevance within the global governance parameters, localization as a process of shifting power dynamics from global to local actors and partners, remains largely elusive.
Agenda 2030 and its principles have intensified the UN reform with the establishment of Resident Coordinator Offices (RCOs) and the transition to national Cooperation Frameworks, expected to build on national development agendas and further integrate the work of individual UN agencies. Some of those agencies with large portions of headquarters-based staff, such as the United Nations Development Programme, are further challenged to transfer staff and expertise to regional and local duty stations. Overall, the UN agencies are increasingly judged based on their ability to “strengthen national capacity” – mostly that of national governments – although it remains unclear what that entails.
INGOs, on their end, are expected to strengthen the capacity of local civil society actors and these investments are even less common, given the international cooperation frameworks that include a ceiling of a maximum of 12% (7% in most humanitarian settings) allocated to overhead and institutional strengthening. Following this direction, however, organizations such as Action Aid and Oxfam have moved their headquarters from London, the UK, to Nairobi, Kenya, and others (such as World Vision and Plan International) have made the shift from project to program planning, with theories of change that reflect sustainability and localization.
Localization as a transformative shift of international cooperation
The strategy of moving secretariat and decision-making bodies to the Global South and the focus on capacity strengthening are certainly positive. However, as Audre Lorde warns, “the old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges.”1
As this collaborative report suggests, based on the insight from over 350 NGOs, UN agencies, donors, Red Cross/Crescent Societies, localization requires effective shifts in power structures and partnership modalities, access to decision-making processes, and the effective reconceptualization of international cooperation based on community-driven initiatives. This Disaster and Emergencies Preparedness Programme report defines seven dimensions of localization: funding, partnership, capacity, participation, coordination, visibility and policy.
The COVID-induced push to localization should push international cooperation actors to re-examine the way they work, including a self-reflection of androcentric, racist and ethnocentric biases that influence the way our work is structured. Localization must include interrogations of the colonial legacy of the international assistance sector that has long suffered from the “White Saviour” complex. This is when the discussion gets constructive.
Key considerations on localization
Significant steps have been made to operationalize the policy objective of localization. Recent From Poverty to Power blog posts offer solution-oriented reflections and represent localization as a spectrum, and not a binary characteristic of international assistance. This blog post speaks about the influential Overseas Development Institute report “From the Ground Up” before proposing recommendations—strengthening civil society structures (in addition to investing in organizations themselves), leaving room for local agency by ensuring flexibility of programming and financial mechanisms, while avoiding the trap of glorifying local partners and stripping them of resources international staff would likely receive. The Equality Fund, Canada’s collaborative hub for the strengthening and the support of feminist movements, has gathered good practices for feminist funding that reflect principles of localization including trust, decolonial approaches and the empowerment of local actors.
Various reports on the topic all boil down to:
- the co-construction from the agenda-setting stage and throughout the program cycle,
- transparency and accountability to the communities themselves,
- long-term and flexible funding for local actors, and
- a clearly communicated exit strategy of international partners.
Unsurprisingly, many requisites for localization are in the hands of donor agencies. Dr. Duncan Green’s latest post on localization in advocacy more clearly articulates that localization must stem from the very identification of priorities, assessments and program design – which is not something one always has the luxury to do while drafting a grant proposal. More on that is explained in this Gates Institute brief.
The usefulness of these tools lies in their representation of localization as a continuous and participatory process, often transitioning from co-ownership to ownership to minimize risks and close the gap of perceived or effective capacity of donor and local actors. Initiatives that allow for participatory agenda setting are, however, not new. For example, Mama Cash, a feminist organization, has been a vocal champion of participatory grant-making, long before the current pandemic.
A useful Canadian example of initiatives that enable localization is the now–completed project of the International Development Research Centre of Canada’s (IDRC) Think Tank Initiative. Their resources report on good practices for sustainably investing in organizational structures and civil society environments more broadly.
Larger INGOs have also produced valuable guidance. Oxfam has a feminist approach to localization, Care has shared some good practices. In general, localization has been a focus of organizations working in the humanitarian sector, including the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The Grand Bargain Localisation Workstream and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies both offer invaluable resources for the work in this area.
Localization is increasingly mentioned as a requisite for the implementation of development frameworks, especially those related to governance and devolution.2 Localization was deemed one of the biggest implementation challenges for the MDGs, which is why it emerges as a critical piece of SDG implementation. Increasingly, localization is perceived as a non-linear and non-hierarchical process, resulting in a more inclusive process for the design of localization shifts themselves.
Overall, localization, in its full meaning, entails fundamental transformation of international cooperation mechanisms. While its complexity cannot be overstated, one of the key ingredients is that of flexible and predictable funding directly oriented towards local actors, while ensuring flexibility of program design and collaborative agenda–setting. On the donor side, it means focusing on strengthening local actors and the processes, and not just the outcomes of service provision handled by local partners. Trust-based and inclusive relationships between donors and local partners are needed – and this is where the push to transition from compliance to accountability becomes important. Replacing outdated regulations, such as Canada’s direction and control rules, which ban charities from allowing the agency of their partners, would be a key step in this direction.
Allowing for a continuous and equitable dialogue and repositioning the focus on the contribution, as opposed to attribution, of donor funding, is needed for locally led agendas. While INGOs can and should be leading such efforts, a more universal adoption of these principles calls for clear donor structures that enable and require localization from its partners, especially those based in the global North.
1 Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Differences,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom: Crossing Press, 1984), 114-123, 123.