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Tackling the ‘How’ in Local First


Local First Strategic Director Matthew Kennis discusses Local First's plans for the year ahead, including an upcoming research project to document best practices that will help donors, international NGOs, and multilaterals overcome some of the practical challenges they face to becoming more locally led.

  • Published

    18 January 2014
  • Written by

    Matthew Kennis

Launched by Peace Direct, the Local First Initiative promotes a development approach that encourages donors and practitioners in development, peacebuilding, and humanitarian aid to look first for the capacity within countries before bringing in external expertise and resources. It asserts that much of this capacity is found outside central government, and that local people should lead in their own development. 

Since joining Local First, I’ve been meeting with colleagues in the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding communities to try and better understand what role Local First can best play to encourage a shift of practice towards the locally led approach.

Though the Local First approach – to look first for the capacity within countries before bringing in external expertise and resources – is a ‘commonsense idea’ and is widely supported at a general level, it is not well enough understood or easily imagined in practice.

To help provide a more concrete vision of what the Local First approach entails, we are about to undertake a 10-month research project that will flesh out good practices and multiple case studies from diverse country contexts on four key themes that have risen to the top in terms of the practical challenges that donors, international NGOs, and multilaterals face. The themes of this initial research include:

  • How to map local organizations and assess their capacity (e.g. without a regular presence of in-country staff, how do international organizations find local [not only capital based] groups and make sure they’re legitimate?);
  • How to consult with local institutions at an early stage of the design process (e.g. how have international organizations prepared project/country teams to build relationships and trust with local groups and think differently about indicators [see Roger Mac Ginty’s blog ‘Everyday Peace Indicators’], measurements, and impact?);
  • Creating funding mechanisms for individual organizations that don’t distort them (e.g. small embassy portfolios, Donor/INGO re-granting schemes), and;
  • Achieving scale by identifying collaborative models  (e.g. networks, coalitions, funding platforms, accrediting schemes) that can handle large amounts of funding for groupings of local organizations.

Our expectation is that during the research process, we will be adapting or revising questions based on the feedback and recommendations we receive. To that end, Local First will be reaching out proactively to INGOs, donors, and multilaterals to learn more about their different partnership approaches, identify additional common challenges they face, and highlight constructive ways to address them.

But this is not only an academic project that results in a report, only to be filed away. The goal of this research effort is to provide helpful examples that advance the ability of international organizations to practice the Local First approach. Or, put another way, by showing that international colleagues in similarly difficult circumstances with equally challenging funding constraints chose to approach local capacity differently and it proved effective, we believe this will go a way towards instilling some confidence in this approach. We envision our findings will also be helpful and encouraging for donors that are moving in the direction of strengthening and working more with local systems, such as USAID (see local systems framework paper).

Our engagement and consultations with donors, international NGOs, and multilaterals will also recognize that large agencies are not monolithic; that they have cultures; that there are always individuals and groups that are working to improve or change practices. So Local First will not be making statements such as ‘x’ INGO, ‘y’ donor or ‘z’ UN agency always does this or that. We will search widely, find, and chronicle good examples where we find them.

You’re talking all about international organizations, but what role do local groups play in Local First?

Local groups and local voices are at the center of this effort. The editor of the blog, Jennifer Lentfer, in a video titled “What’s needed to put local champions at the forefront?” highlights the challenge that “the web of local organizations and grassroots movements around the world is still largely undocumented and unrecognized”.

At a broad level, Local First will be building and engaging a network of local actors from all over the world to contribute to, improve, and test useful practices we hope to uncover during our research. Similar to the new information we expect to learn from international groups, local organizations will push us to think differently and adjust our assumptions and expectations.

In addition to a wide feedback process, Local First will be working closely at a country level to engage networks of local organizations and international development practitioners to adapt some of the examples that are found in the research. We will also be looking to provide more opportunities on the Local First blog for local voices to explain the challenges and solutions they’ve found as our community of practice grows.

As Soledad Muñiz wrote in her Local First Blog, “participatory video can be a highly effective tool to engage and mobilize marginalized people and to help them implement their own forms of sustainable development based on local needs and home-known rights”. As participatory video illustrates, and Local First has profiled, local organizations and voices can be extremely articulate, resourceful, and accountable in highly challenging circumstances when viewed as partners and problem solvers.

Ultimately, the task at hand is clear: Local First will compile and highlight the strategies and examples that already exist but are not necessarily widely known to illustrate the power and effectiveness of local voices, local action, and equitable partnership. The redefined roles and expectations that are surfaced will challenge the international community, but the practical examples will provide confidence that the Local First approach is both achievable and worth the effort.

Happy 2014! Looking forward to an exciting and productive year ahead.

For more information or to get involved in this research, please email [email protected]



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