They are right to be worried. There have already been successful efforts to water down such definitions and targets, for example during the Grand Bargain agreement in 2016, where a commitment to funding local organisations ‘as directly as possible’ was edited to include funding INGOs. Even the progressive New Partnerships Initiative by USAID appears to include definitions that will ensure large international NGOs operating in-country can maintain access to USAID funding.
At Peace Direct, our definition of ‘locally-led’ comes from years of talking to our partners about this issue. They, and we, define it as initiatives and organisations ‘owned and led by people in their own context’. Of course, there are ways to argue that this definition is subject to manipulation. Can an international NGO country office which has a Board of Directors composed entirely of local people be regarded as local? For us, and the local activists we talk to, the answer is no.
An international NGO country office is almost always accountable to a head office based somewhere else, usually in the Global North, both in terms of its governance and strategy. The head office influences the strategy, culture, priorities and to what extent the local office can operate independently. Local ownership and leadership are subordinate to a global north strategy or governance, and this often means abrupt country office closures when funding or priorities change. Let’s not forget why international NGOs establish country offices. It is to maintain control over their operations and access to funding that has been devolved to the country-level offices of donors. This disqualifies them from being locally led, no matter how many local people are employed or sit around the Boardroom table.
If local organisations find themselves always competing for funding with international NGOs who are also presenting themselves as local, then what hope is there for the development of a genuinely home-grown civil society, accountable to its communities and able to chart its own path? The role of international NGOs must change, from implementers to sidekicks and advocates, providing solidarity and support when requested and needed, but not before. This will require international NGOs, such as my own organisation, to step back and let others do the talking and doing, and to see this as success. This is why the definitions of what constitutes as ‘local’ matter.