Still stumbling…Why isn’t locally led development finding its feet?  

Katherine Warner

Locally led development is a trending topic again in development circles.[1] A leading proponent is USAID, which has put an “emphasis on local actors’ priorities, needs, goals, and ideas.”[2] Donor-stated commitments to locally led development are not new. For decades, we have heard calls to be less top-down and more locally driven.[3] Remember the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005? 

But there is still a need for more-fundamental changes in development agencies’ cultures and practices to make locally led development the true driver of sustainable development. Why aren’t we there yet? The short answer is that change isn’t easy.  

There are barriers that have proven difficult to break through or climb over. Historical power imbalances between donor and recipient nations continue into the present day, with development aid still largely externally driven and aligned with donor priorities, rather than the priorities of the recipient countries and their communities.  

A current example is climate finance. Developing countries have repeatedly stated that their primary climate concern is adaptation yet only 20-25% of climate finance is for adaptation. Donor (a.k.a. high greenhouse gas-emitting) countries have set the priority on mitigation.   

Development agencies are, understandably, driven by their own strategies, objectives, and activities, and also contend with domestic political oversight. Grappling with stretched staff and short-term timeframes, donor agencies are not intrinsically structured to directly dialogue or support local organizations. This perpetuates the top-down nature of development aid and hinders, even when it is a stated priority, the restructuring needed for locally led development.  

The recent USAID localization progress report[4] notes the significant changes underway within the agency to promote localization including – quite commendably – more national staff being hired and trained to enable more direct contact with local organizations. However, the report expresses the USAID localization target as a percent of direct funding to local organizations. With the definition of local organizations still evolving, does the local office of an international organization meet the criteria? The example cited for biggest localization success is the PEPFAR program in which 57% went to direct local USAID funding. But is this an example of local implementation of an externally driven project?  

The development aid culture itself is a barrier.[5] Beyond the rhetoric, is there a willingness to change how development aid is planned and implemented? If truly local, there are major implications for the development industry. Typically, development agencies view larger for-profit development companies and non-profit organizations as trusted partners who can get the job done in challenging environments. These companies and organizations, logically, have a stake in retaining the status quo, even if some are making efforts to boost local ownership.  

Bolstering this status quo are persistent perceptions that local organizations are more inherently prone to fraud and do not have adequate management systems. These myths persist despite empirical evidence that locally led development is more cost effective (especially when compared to the cost associated with implementation by for-profit companies), more efficient and sustainable because local organizations bring cultural and political understanding and a long-term commitment to the development of their communities and country.  

Countries and their communities should be setting the development agenda based on locally determined needs. This requires donors to restructure their way of doing business – staffing, priority setting, implementation mechanisms – and move away from the current perception of local implementation of donor programs as being locally led development. We should recognize the focus on short-term projects and the expectation of quick (albeit non-sustainable) results and do away with unrealistic timebound and target oriented measures of success.  

Too often missing in the development discussion is affirmation of its central purpose: the genuine transformation of locals who then take the lead in transforming their society. There are success stories. The locally-led Green Belt Movement in Kenya has been a notable success in not only transforming landscapes but empowering women. Heifer International in Nepal has empowered over 300,000 rural women and their families to help catalyse remarkable personal, economic, social, and political gains for them through a proven bottom-up approach.  

Success comes from building a strong foundation, strengthening capacity, and providing long-term engagement. The biggest lesson learned is that, if given the opportunity and appropriate financial support, locally led development places local civil society and organizations in the lead, with success measured in personal, institutional, and system changes.[6]

Let’s go beyond the talk. Let us all walk the walk of locally led development.


[1] Reichle, S. (2022) Learning and Leadership: the case study challenge. Commentary essay. In Ingram, G. Locally Driven Development: Overcoming the Obstacles. Brookings.

[2] USAID (2023) Moving towards a model of locally led development. FY2022 Localization Progress Report.

[3] Hillyard, D., Hall, J.C., and Ellerman, D. (2007) Helping People Help Themselves: From the World Bank to an Alternative Philosophy of Development Assistance. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, Vol 20, pgs. 203–205.

[4] USAID (2023) Moving towards a model of locally led development. FY2022 Localization Progress Report.

[5] Igoe, M. (June 13, 2023). The Localization Wars. Devex.

[6] Warner, K. (2022) Transforming Society:  Locally Led Development. Report prepared for Heifer International.


About the Author

Dr. Katherine “Kadi” Warner is an anthropologist with over 40 years of experience in sustainable development, community-based resource management, market systems, gender, policy and regulatory frameworks, and rights and benefits. She has worked in over 20 countries in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Based in Queensland, Australia, she works at the Tropical Forests and People Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast.