June 1, 2023

Change on locally led development is non-negotiable: what’s the first move?

“We should look to draw in local knowledge and on-the-ground expertise to make our programs better.”

Speaking on the new direction of the development program late last year, Minister Pat Conroy signalled an acknowledgement of what many have been saying for a long time: that change on locally led development is essential. We know that it delivers value and is a key indicator of development progress.

As we wait for the new policy to land, this week we wanted to explore what the first move should be to accelerate this change. Here’s what the experts said.

Dr Salmah Eva-Lina Lawrence
Director of Systemic Change & Partnerships, IWDA

Who gets to define what decolonisation looks like? The Majority World (that is, all those designated as belonging to a ‘developing’ country as well as indigenous populations in white-settler countries) has learnt over the last 70-odd years that political decolonisation has not provided freedom from the totality of colonising undertakings. And whilst Minority World international development actors have recently acknowledged that decolonisation is non-negotiable, many seem oblivious to the following.

Firstly, if Minority World institutions are the dominant actors defining what decolonisation means for the Majority World this constitutes colonisation! If your roundtable of experts on decolonisation does not have at least equal representation and participation from the specific global majority population you are engaging with then you are likely applying a Minority World lens. Ergo, you are engaged in colonising rather than decolonising!

Secondly, locally led development is not decolonisation if all that is happening is replacing white bodies with brown bodies. Putting Pacific nationals into positions once occupied by expatriates does not on its own constitute decolonisation. Decolonisation means challenging and changing norms around global racial and knowledge hierarchies and power structures. To enable this, the first move has to be engagement with Majority World decolonial thinkers and practitioners to come to a common understanding.

Finally, for as long as coloniality continues, the global majority will see aid as reparations for ongoing colonising by the Minority World. Would it not be prudent, in these times of polycrises, for the global minority to endeavour to understand the perspective of this majority?

Salmah leads work on decolonising approaches in international development as the Director of Systemic Change and Partnerships at IWDA. Her expertise lies at the heart of locally led development, bringing together her experience in executive management, decolonial ethics, and her own Papua New Guinean and matrilineal culture. At the Lab, we love Salmah’s commitment to both challenging power imbalances and calling out colonial rhetoric, and her willingness to share her wisdom.

Emmeline Siale Ilolahia & Jocelyn Condon
Executive Director, PIANGO & Chief Operating Officer, ACFID

Pacific Civil Society Organisations, such as PIANGO, have embraced locally led development as a journey of self-determination from the colonial mindset of development paradigm largely influenced by the power of aid.  

The first move for Australia is to listen and accompany local partners in that journey. Australian development organisations, including the donor community, are sometimes guilty of admiring localisation as a philosophical challenge rather than engaging with the practical mechanisms available that offer inroads to realising such ambition.

Listening to local leaders in our region is the first step to building trust in a relationship that accompanies a process of co-sourced solutions. And, these solutions are often simpler than we perhaps think. An example of this is the co-design of a Pacific-led Civil Society Organisation (CSO) accountability framework – which was developed through an accompaniment approach with ACFID. This framework represents a detailed and practical articulation of Pacific CSO leaders’ collective knowledge of what locally led and accountable organisations look like in the region – from due diligence to operational functions and community approaches. It’s aligned to the Global Standard and is effectively an invitation for governments, international partners and donors to engage in a Pacific vision of accountability that reflects the values, strength and diversity of Pacific civil society.

When we listen to Pacific CSO leaders, we are ‘talanoa’ in a conversation – the beginning of sharing power. Pacific CSO leaders are not asking international NGOs and the wider donor community to come up with dazzling, new ways to advance locally led development. They are asking donors to simply get behind this and other Pacific-driven initiatives. Lifting the lid on these opportunities reveals something important: a Pacific-driven vision for accountable and locally led development in their region is not so different from an Australian one. But, these differences are important, and how those with power heed the calls for practical engagement with truly Pacific-led initiatives will define our success from here.  

The moment to seize these opportunities is now, and how the Australian development program chooses to position behind them will determine our trajectory.

Siale is a development powerhouse, a long-time Tongan civil society leader, and the Director of PIANGO. She has extensive experience at both the regional and country level and a strong reputation for developing meaningful, locally led partnerships. At The Lab, we love Siale’s readiness to collaborate and her clear, cut-through analysis of what’s essential for better development outcomes in the region.

Jocelyn is the leader behind ACFID’s development standard and work fostering a high performing NGO sector. She has a unique blend of development, financial and governance skills that she brings to bear in the not-for-profit and development sectors. At the Lab, we love Jocelyn for her combination of smarts, quick wit and practical know-how.

Dr Deborah Cummins
Founder & Director, Bridging Peoples

Real, honest transformation of power relationships is key. For traditional aid providers, the first step is the willingness and capacity to shift decision-making power to the people who know their communities best – governments, national & local NGOs, and community members. For traditional aid recipients (governments/civil society organisations/community organisations), the first step is to take on the responsibility that comes with power, by being clear about what they want to achieve and how they’ll go about it, and by holding themselves accountable to the people they represent. This is often not easy.

We know that top-down development paradigms don’t work, and that locally led development delivers better results. But we have to be honest that shifting decision-making power can also cause harm, and we all need to hold ourselves accountable for this. If the localisation process is not carried out carefully, it can fuel conflict and/or corruption, and entrench existing inequalities. It’s important to mitigate these risks by focusing everyone’s attention on the ultimate end-game – achieving positive change in community members’ lives.

To help guide this process and make these moves towards locally led development, we created the Bridging Peoples Framework for Localisation. It focuses on three pillars: effectiveness/good technical design; local legitimacy; and downwards accountability. These pillars allow everyone involved to move beyond good intentions to building everyone’s capacity to get the job done – working with donor organisations to guide how they shift power to local partners, while simultaneously encouraging local partners to deepen their own engagement with, and accountability to, community members and other stakeholders.

Deb’s experience in the development industry is impressive and she now heads up the team at Bridging Peoples as their Director. She’s dedicated to improving aid effectiveness and impact at the local level as both an academic and a consultant, having previously been involved in The Asia Foundation, the National University of Timor-Leste, UNSW and the University of Newcastle. At the Lab, we enjoy reading Deb’s work on local level governance in Timor-Leste, love her deep commitment to meaningful relationships, and value her practical insights on truly locally led development practices.

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