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.