Local?

2 Sep

It is interesting to note that in all of the fervor to point out what’s wrong with aid, the most common critiques and frequently touted solutions alike come back to vaguely defined pronouncements about “local.” “Local” seems to be the holy grail of right thought and right action in the relief and development world. Support local industry, build local capacity, empower local producers, work with and through local partners, local NGOs/CBOs/FBOs, local knowledge, local language, local sensitivities, and on and on.

“Local” is past the point of being aid doctrine (remember, aid is a religion), and is now full-on aid dogma. It is the aid world debate trump card du jour. Any aid conversation one doesn’t happen to like the tone or direction of can be brought to a grinding halt with, “yes, but you didn’t mention local organizations…”

Yeah, I get it. And if you’ve spent more than a few minutes reading through previous posts on this blog you know that I embrace “local” as an article of faith in the Church of Aid. I myself have waved that sword vigorously in the past (and may do so again in the future). The values of local participation, leadership, knowledge, ownership in aid are so glaringly obvious as to be incontrovertible. After twenty years in this industry during which I have seen some wacky “aid” projects and met some truly misguided individuals practicing the sector, I still cannot think of a single person who disputes the value of local.

But at the risk of committing aid blasephemy I just have to say:

Local is not a magik bullet. While I absolutely believe that “local” is a critical, essential ingredient in “good aid”, it is not The Solution. Making everything local will not fix what’s wrong with aid. Making everything local is no guarantee of success or even a guarantee of the absence of meltdown in an aid project. Local people and organizations are just as capable of implementing bad aid, and every bit as susceptible to the temptations of dumbassery as internationals; local knowledge and wisdom are often plain wrong; local incompetence is still incompetence. We often feel ethnocentric saying so, but we don’t do ourselves or those we claim we want to help any favors by pretending it’s any other way.

How local is local? “Local” is one of those aid jargon terms that gets thrown around a lot, but that few define or use specifically. There’s local and there’s local and then again, there’s local. To someone living in Ha Tay, people from Ha Noi are not local. Except by comparison to people fromDa Nang. To Martians, everybody on Planet Earth is local. The range of what qualifies as a “local NGO” is so wide as to make the term practically useless (same applies to INGOs, by the way). A “local NGO” can be two little old ladies in Newara Eliya with one sewing machine between them… or a four-storey building in La Paz with wifi, white Landcruisers, and an international travel budget. Some might argue that FEMA is a local organization. The range of what these respective kinds of “local NGOs” and everything else in between can offer in terms of capacity, output, and program quality is similarly great. We don’t advance the cause of local by lumping and using the term imprecisely.

Provincialism is a constant tension. There is a dark side to local. It’s called provincialism – the idea that the way we do it here is the only way that works. It’s another way to grind conversations to a halt before they even get started, silence debate about what’s possible, are kill ideas dead before there’s been any actual discussion. It’s a problem to take seriously. Obviously we don’t want to try to implement “one size fits all” solutions. But we have to resist the “no size fits us” argument as well.

Internationalism is a reality. The common theme of aid critiques from Bill Easterly to Fiona Terry to Linda Polman to the righteous indignation of the aid blogosphere seems generally to be that “aid is messed up because it’s being run by a bunch of foreigners who have conflicted motivations and don’t sufficiently appreciate ‘local.’” And while it’s hard to dispute their cases – the evidence is pretty clear – what I have not seen yet is substantive discussion around the simple reality that internationalism is a reality and what that means moving forward.

It is far past time to move beyond the simple critique. International aid and international aid organizations exist. Like it or not, they’re not going away. Even if totally localizing everything would work and was practical (it wouldn’t, and isn’t), it still would not happen. For better or for worse we’re in a globalized society where those with means, due to a wide range of motivations, do and will go elsewhere to “help.” We don’t do ourselves or anyone else any service by pretending or wishing that it was otherwise.  We need to develop paradigms and language that take this international reality into account. We need to find ways to stop pitting “local” against “international”, and focus on making aid a conversation rather than a series of declarations.

13 Responses to “Local?”

  1. Nathan yaffe 2 September, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    But… But… I thought it was so simple! *weeps*

  2. Nathan Yaffe 2 September, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Okay, I don’t *actually* think it’s so simple.

    I think this is a great post. Thanks for writing it.

    I’ve got two thoughts, and one chip-on-my-shoulder statement. I’m really curious to hear what you think, at least about the first two:

    1) This first thought comes from the complex systems folks who believe that the best outcome will result if we set up the system to allow for variation, selection, and amplification. This may be cynical, but part of me thinks we should tentatively promote local efforts from a logistical (or maybe from a budgetary…) perspective because it’s a cheaper way to fail. I know that most of the people you’re targeting in this post wouldn’t embrace the slogan “Promote Local: It’s The Cheapest Way To Fail,” but that being said, Owen’s factoid that the EU spends $4.32 billion simply on STARTING 22,000 new aid/development projects every year… sticks out to me.

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper to tentatively align with local efforts in the short run (i.e. with funding and personnel support), cut off the ones that fail, and move toward better solutions through a process of evolution? It seems that *in many cases* this approach would be a hell of a lot cheaper, and facilitating failing a hell of a lot faster, than what we currently do.

    2) This is slightly devil’s advocate — I know I mentioned this Chambers quote (http://aidontheedge.info/2011/02/15/whose-paradigm-counts-2/) over on my blog, but it’s relevant: I think top-down approaches are dominant in development *action* if not in development *thinking*. It seems like your post shows that support for local is ubiquitous in development thinking, or development ideals. But doesn’t it say something pessimistic about the ability of writers/thinkers/the blogosphere to influence policy on a large scale IF we simultaneously observe universal enthusing about local but also the domination of foreign voices in practice? I’m not trying to jump on the Luc bandwagon (i.e. our voices don’t matter), but it seems worth asking.

    Okay, that was the important stuff. This is the personal thing: My perspective as a 22-year old a few weeks out of undergrad is skewed by virtue of having a very small range of experiences, most of which involve Haiti. I don’t try to hide that. If, as you say, the aid conversation is more top-down and one-sided in Haiti than other places you’ve been, I defer. After all, you’ve been working professionally in this sector for almost as long as I’ve been alive. So, I can happily accept that I’ve just seen the worst side of international aid, and I’d find that encouraging.

    What I write for HJA’s blog is – as we explicitly state – in reference to our own partner groups. They’re not lumped/imprecise, nor is my discussion of their work, as you said on twitter, “not based in reality.” When I say on our blog that giving money to local ag groups would have been better than subsidizing Monsanto, I mean compared to SOIL and Konpay and What If?. I’d go so far as to argue that there are no investments of better value to make in Haiti *in the areas our partners work on*. And that’s not local dogma speaking: we don’t partner with a Haitian-run health services org, because I don’t think there are any that beat Partners in Health working there.

    Now, I know this was in reference to a lot of people, not just me. And maybe I wasn’t even in this category in your mind, but the timing is too suggestive for me not to say something. I don’t want to be discounted in the dialogue with you folks as someone without serious opinions, or who just wants to bang the drum of his pet beliefs. I’m both a) willing to study, and b) willing to question, challenge, and reject my own beliefs. I think anyone who passes those two bars deserves some respect.

    • J. 2 September, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

      Hey Nathan, thanks for commenting. Some thought-provoking stuff. This is all obviously part of a much larger conversation. A few reactions to what you write:

      1) “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to tentatively align with local efforts in the short run (i.e. with funding and personnel support), cut off the ones that fail, and move toward better solutions through a process of evolution? It seems that *in many cases* this approach would be a hell of a lot cheaper, and facilitating failing a hell of a lot faster, than what we currently do.”

      Intuitively I want to say you’re right. It’s what I was taught in grad school. It’s the dominant doctrine in many aid circles right now (“doctrine”… not necessarily “practice”). It’s the answer that my mind sort of naturally defaults to. But: a) is it really cheaper? Has that actually been studied? b) The Owen factoid about 3.2 billion on new projects is kind of monolithic. Are we assuming that those are all internationally run projects? In fact, it’s probably a mix. c) I’m not convinced that cheaper is necessarily better (see also http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/07/27/humanitarian-aid-101-3-efficient/). Not to play too many word games, but I think we’re after “effective” and “sustainable”, not “cheap”, here.</

      2) I do actually see “local” thinking and orientation and values (whatever all of those mean) as ubiquitous in the aid sector. I have yet to sit through a USAID or EC or DFID briefing where the person speaking did not admonish us to prioritize strong local partnerships, strategies, solutions, rely on local knowledge, etc. (most USAID grant programs make demonstrating solid local partnerships a point-of-sale when it comes to funding decisions). Similarly, I have yet to sit through a HRI-affiliate strategy or project planning session in which the ideas of building local capacity, finding locally appropriate solutions, etc. weren’t laboriously wailed away at. I have yet to sit through a coordination meeting or inter-agency working group of some kind where local isn’t a central theme. Seriously, I do believe that the thinking and the valuing – in principle – is there. The doing is where it breaks down – in my view typically because most approach in a non-nuanced way (as I think I argued in the post and on twitter).

      I see the dominance of top-down approaches as an artifact of the reality of how aid is resourced more than anything else. As international practitioners, we’re in a nearly impossible space, frequently caught in the middle between imperialist and provincialist modes of thinking.

      As for the influence of the blogosphere. Well, all I can say here is that as much as it sort of pains me to say, Luc is not totally wrong: there is a big difference between having a lot of followers and hits and “likes”, and affecting change at the policy level. It’s a difficult jump to make.

      3) The personal stuff. No. This was not in any way directed at you or what you’ve written on your site. I acknowledge that there are many out there, perhaps including you, there quietly plugging away, getting it right.

      • Nathan Yaffe 5 September, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

        Dear J.,

        Thanks again for the thoughtful reply…

        Regarding this quote of yours: “I see the dominance of top-down approaches as an artifact of the reality of how aid is resourced more than anything else. As international practitioners, we’re in a nearly impossible space, frequently caught in the middle between imperialist and provincialist modes of thinking.”

        That strikes me as really astute, and also seemingly brings up another issue. If aid industry folk are always admonishing practitioners to find and work with local groups and local capacity, but top-down approaches persist and/or predominate because of the way aid is resourced [I know I’m making a way over-simplified distinction between local and top-down as if it’s either-or], one of two things seems possible: 1) it’s necessary to have the countervailing pull of “go local!” as a point of dogma, to resist the inevitable drift back toward top-down approaches, or 2) there’s some other mindset/ideology/approach that aid folk could adopt that better takes into account the realities of the way aid is resourced. I often think that Owen is advocating for #2 (don’t admonish to do it differently; just take the incentives into account correctly!) but I’m curious what your take is on this.

        Food for thought. Thanks again for the response.

  3. Anna 4 September, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    I agree that internationalism is a reality and moving forward, but I think it’s the moving forward part that’s important here. The (professional) aid and development sector has a *huge* role to play in shaping what internationalism means, hopefully with different motivations from those who are shaping it via other routes such as free trade agreements and the R2P/”humanitarian” style wars of late. Aid has a history (and present) of being similarly wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, something that I think can only evolve with pointed and purposeful steps in the opposite direction. As far as players on the international stage go, I’d say aid organizations are in a pretty unique position in terms of mission, purpose, and methods, a position that can all too easily be influenced by the rest of the players.

  4. Joe Turner 5 September, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    I know I know nothing, but it seems to me that this is the crux of an oxymoron in the paradigm.

    Either Aid is Professional – in which case you get the best people and the best technologies to do the job – or it is Local, in which you grab anyone closest to hand to do it. Local people might be the best suited to do the job, but they might also be the worst, too close to ethnic tensions, too easily swayed by local politics, lacking in appropriate training and looking to cash in on an emergency.

    Yes, I get all the ‘ask the local people what they want’ yabbering. Which all sounds well-and-good until you get to the point where it is totally unrealistic to expect local people to have the slightest clue what they want. In the case of asking local people about crop failure in the Horn of Africa might be irrelevant (they want Maize but the bloody crop is too unreliable and keeps failing) or uninformed (they are unlikely to understand scientific terms) or too simplistic (they’d like to survive).

    I’d suggest what you actually want is the best-and-most-appropriate intervention rather than the most local.

  5. Andie @ THF 5 September, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    Hi! This is a great post and I’d like to thank you for raising this. My organisation believes in “local”, however it also believes in partnerships between local and local, local and international and international and international.

    In our view, everybody gains from these cross-cultural partnerships- not just in a learning-curve sort of way- but on the actual field. What’s your opinion on this sort of partnerships?

  6. angelica 5 September, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    great post J. my two pennies are that if local was so great, half the time they wouldn’t need us (there is nepotism, there are clashing clans, lack of rule of law, corruption…) which is where I think one of the biggest failings of the international community comes in: We want to empower the locals, we want the cultural link and sustainability that gives, but in order for that to work we need to put in the time to be able to know what the real issues are, who the real partners are, what are the strengths and what things do not (and should not) be replicated. we need to spend real and consistent time on the ground.

    then come the donors, who are too concerned with their own policies and political priorities to listen to the aid workers on the ground and the experts, and keep imposing their priorities.

    I could go on… but I’ll spare y’all

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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