‘Success should not be measured by outputs or the amount of money spent, but by the ability of Afghan institutions to deliver services, the Afghan private sector to generate jobs, and Afghan civil society to provide avenues for citizens to hold their governments accountable’ (US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 2011).

Local First is a development approach that looks first for the capacity within countries before bringing in external expertise and resources, recognises that much of this capacity is found outside central government, and understands that local people need to lead their own development.

It’s hard to imagine a simpler or more commonsense idea – that development initiatives should support and amplify existing local activity, including civil society, private sector suppliers and government, rather than starting from scratch with concepts or goods and services from outside; and that development initiatives should be judged to a significant degree on the extent to which they leave local organisations stronger and more capable than at the outset.

Aid is not development, although it can lead to development. Development happens when all the resources of a country are used to the greatest effect – when the dynamism that exists is tapped into, and people practice self-help and mutual help, leading to self-reliance. Nowhere is this needed more than in countries that are emerging from conflict.

The way that outsiders work with local organisations really mat ters. Outsiders, with the best of intentions, can end up destroying the organisation that they wanted to support. Local First argues for initiatives that are:

  • Locally led, where the local partner formulates the approach,and the outside agency provides, for example, resources and connections to organisations working in similar ways for mutual learning and support.

Or else:

  • Locally owned, where the approach comes from outside but there is a determined effort to ‘transplant’ the ownership of the work to a legitimate local organisation that over time can transform the programme into one that is locally led.

This is in contrast to the very common phenomenon of:

  • Locally delivered, where the approach comes from outside and a local organisation is selected to implement it, without having been involved in setting the priorities or the approach, and where there is no transfer of ownership.

Local First is not a wholly novel approach and there are many encouraging examples where it has been put into practice. However, most aid is still heavily influenced in its deployment by outside agencies. This is also the case with peacebuilding. Power is largely kept in the hands of outsiders. Yet the case studies summarised in this pamphlet, and described in more detail in the accompanying book, illustrate how locally led activities can be large-scale and effective in the areas defined by the World Bank as priorities in post-conflict countries – security, justice and livelihoods:

  • Building Markets found markets for Afghan businesses at a scale which amounted, in one year, to 2 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP.
  • Luta Hamutuk, in Timor Leste, has mobilised citizens to scrutinise infrastructure projects for a typical cost of $1 per $1,000 of investment.
  • IBJ Cambodia is providing legal defence services in 17 out of 24 provinces in Cambodia.
  • FOMICRES worked with the Christian Council of Mozambique to collect weapons and spread a culture of peace nationwide.
  • CEDAC created peace committees across Burundi in 2006, 60 per cent of which are still active.
  • In DRC, the Centre Résolution Conflits demonstrated a 90 per cent success rate in its disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme by focusing on effective reintegration.

But Local First does not mean ‘local only’. The case studies illustrate a number of successful partnerships between local and outside organisations, where outsiders added value, but did not take over – for example, the technical support to weapons collection provided by the South African army to FOMICRES in Mozambique. Conversely, the CEDAC case study suggests that while agencies such as UNDP used CEDAC to deliver their programmes across the country, they were unwilling to fund CEDAC’s own priorities.

Putting Local First into practice requires rethinking assumptions about impact, developing new approaches to finding local capacity and shaping partnerships that work with locals on an equal footing.

Dilemmas

a) Finding and assessing local capacity

Finding and assessing local capacity to act on a particular issue requires specialist knowledge and experience – from a donor’s field-based staff, an INGO or a local entity such as a chamber of commerce or a network.

Organisations need to be judged realistically, by what they have achieved in often challenging circumstances, with limited resources, and against their own objectives. Where organisations claim to be working for community benefit, their legitimacy needs to be tested. Interviewing ‘beneficiaries’ may not work when people feel that their answers will determine whether badly needed resources are to be provided. A better test may be the extent to which an organisation mobilises voluntary effort. People don’t give their time to an organisation which they do not feel is working in their interests.

This is a far cry from the calls for tenders to be completed in a highly complex form, often in the applicant’s second or third language, which have been criticised as favouring ‘NGO businesses’ specialising in bid writing. There is a place for open competition, but it should be supplemented by other forms of assessment by people with an in-depth knowledge of the field.

b) Supporting without distorting

Generally where local organisations receive external funding, it is in order to scale up their operations. This needs care, if it is not to destroy the qualities that made the organisation successful in the first place. Masooda Bano’s chastening account of how external funding destroyed functioning civil society organisations in Pakistan, also draws a sharp distinction between voluntary organisations and NGOs. Voluntary organisations engage volunteer effort, operate with a low cost base, and show long-term commitment to their mission and their community. NGOs don’t have volunteers, have a cost base more in line with international NGOs, and take on the work that someone will fund. Turning a voluntary organisation into an NGO is unhelpful.

These case studies line up with Bano’s analysis in showing how organisations can grow considerably in scale, as well as employ a team of paid staff, without losing their ability to mobilise voluntary effort. This is a function of how they engage with outside funders:

  • They were pre-existing organisations, which had been created in response to a need, not to a funding opportunity.
  • The organisations began with a voluntary self-help ethos.
  • They sought funding or partnership (or in the case of IBJ Cambodia, where the local director moved from his previous position, a job) on their own terms.
  • They limited the rewards to paid staff.

There is a symmetry here with Bano’s recommendations (2012: 175 ff.) about how to avoid destroying organisations through external funding:

  • Do not pay high salaries to initiators – these sap both their motivation and that of their followers.
  • Fund material activities that benefit the whole organisation.
  • Monitor performance in terms of members’ satisfaction and engagement.
  • Be willing to work with organisations on equal terms, listening to their perspectives and approaches to development.
  • Adjust incentives over time as the work develops

Another form of distortion occurs when local procurement is developed for a commodity that has only a temporary market, or where the local supplier is fundamentally uncompetitive. The Building Markets case study of local procurement in Afghanistan shows, among many positive outcomes, the challenge of an Afghan boot producer that succeeded for a while in supplying boots to the US Army, but was ultimately undercut by a Pakistani company. Hence Building Markets are emphasising working with private sector companies to procure locally.

c) Working at scale

It takes time for organisations to get to a size where they match the scale at which donors prefer to fund. The increasing emphasis on showing impact also tends to work in favour of large-scale projects. Almost always, external contractors, or multilateral agencies, are seen as the only organisations able to bid for work at the largest scale.

Yet it is at this scale that prioritising the use of local capacity could have the biggest long-term impact. Donors who genuinely want to prioritise locally led initiatives, will find ways to support groupings of organisations who collectively can deliver at scale. For example, the community-based DDR work described in the case study of the Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC) could be carried out, with support from CRC, by a number of other organisations based across Nord Kivu. Rather than demobilising 4,300 combatants and reintegrating 1,300, a consortium could work with five or ten times this number.

d) Redefining roles

Even if donor governments could be persuaded of the benefits of a Local First approach, would recipient governments accept it? Would the trade-off of greater use of local capacity, and a greater role for recipient governments in shaping their own contribution, compensate for the possible loss of access to aid funds and the prestige that comes from deploying those funds? Can desire to provide better public goods be harnessed?

The enthusiasm for the post-Busan New Deal for building peaceful states suggests that the principle of involving civil society more closely in a coherent national plan for peacebuilding is gaining acceptance.

Multilaterals will continue to have a big role to play. As the case studies demonstrate, their access to resources, technical expertise and logistical capacity can be invaluable to their local partners. But they need to be genuinely doing things that could not be done by one or more local organisations. Good examples of partnership need to be encouraged, for example the principle of co-design of projects with local partners.

Local First also represents a challenge for INGOs. There will certainly continue to be a role for them, but it may be a changing one – less an implementer, deliverer of stand-alone capacity-building programmes and conduit for donor funds, and more a discoverer and nurturer of talent, with a very clear objective of enabling organisations to lead from the beginning, and to contribute their knowledge to the INGO and its other partners.