Shifting power back into the hands of the communities we serve: MEDA’s localization approach

There is a long-standing tension between international development assistance and local knowledge, agency, ownership, and decision-making. Government commitments to aid, fundraising efforts, technical assistance, and the distribution of international agency staff between “headquarters” and “country offices” has been the subject of debate, criticism, and much-needed organizational change.

In recent years, there have been several initiatives in the international development sector to implement localization. In 2016, The Grand Bargain was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit – this initiative committed to not only increasing the efficiency and transparency of aid delivery but also ensuring those impacted by humanitarian and development programs were making decisions related to their design, implementation, and governance. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and several bilateral donors have further pledged to advance locally-led development aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). USAID’s recent Local Capacity Strengthening Policy further recognizes the importance of local organizations in driving economic growth as well as strengthening civil society and national governance. The Swedish International Development Association identifies key pillars in its support of local organizations and the Government of Ghana has also gone a step further with its Ghana Beyond Aid strategy, which ties economic transformation to independence from aid entirely as a means of self-determination.

Two factors have accelerated this momentum toward localization. Firstly, there has been greater recognition of the role that structural racism, sexism, and colonialism play across society and commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic shut international borders, preventing travel, and forcing organizations to adapt their programmatic and operational approaches. The pandemic has created opportunities for local organizations to demonstrate their ability to respond to—and lead the recovery from—a sustained public health emergency and economic crisis.

Where localization stands today

Yet, despite these changes, the actual flow of aid dollars to local entities has been limited and at odds with broader policy commitments, comprising a fraction of overall development assistance. For instance, out of the $21.2 billion that was committed to international humanitarian aid in 2017, only 0.4% of the aid was received by local and national NGOs directly. A lack of strategic alignment by donors, ineffective identification of local organizations, challenges completing due diligence, and lack of sustained funding negatively impact the ability of local organizations to grow, thrive, and sustain their work. The operational approach to “localizing” aid for government donors and the non-government actors that support them remains largely at the level of commitment and dialog.

What MEDA is doing

Like many organizations, MEDA is committed to localizing its programs. As part of its ten-year strategy Towards an Equal World, MEDA has committed to advancing the shared voice and power of our stakeholders in all aspects of our work, with success defined by local contexts. This is reflected in our ‘North-South Equilibrium’—a paradigm shift that seeks to decolonize and localize our programs by transferring power and draws upon the expertise of those in the Global South to fix inequitable systems, strengthen local stakeholders, and design and deliver programs.

Moving from strategic goals to operationalizing and implementing these changes requires a pragmatic approach to achieving these objectives and shifting approaches to MEDA’s governance, philanthropy, communications operations, programs, and evaluation.

MEDA is implementing its localization by:

Investing in Transformation initiatives

MEDA is changing in line with its strategy. This involves change initiatives linked to our strategic objectives and targets. We’re investing significant staff and financial resources to identify, define, and execute institutional changes to better align with our organizational goals, decent work targets, and commitment to localization. For example, we have accelerated our approach to incorporating anti-racist practices throughout our organization, refined our approach to systems change, sharpened our measurement and tracking of decent work, and adapted our policies and procedures to support country offices to lead planning, implementation, partner engagement, and strategy development.

Building operational infrastructure

MEDA is supporting country offices to localize their work. This involves increasing the autonomy and oversight of country managers and directors, embedding technical staff, and supporting functions, developing country strategies and national targets, shifting donor and partner engagement to countries and regions, and decentralizing oversight, management, and leadership. Importantly, it also means co-creating, designing, and rolling our policies, procedures, training, and guidance to support country teams to sustain this transition and achieve success.

Refining its partnership model

We are using a systems lens to identify gaps and opportunities for new partnerships. We are evolving our partnership model to work alongside partners with complementary capabilities, co-creating solutions using local knowledge and expertise, adjusting our funding and governance to reflect a consortia approach, and sharpening our internal capabilities around partnership.

In the future

Broader commitments to localization have created opportunities and a sense of urgency for how international development organizations operate. However, these shifts can only be put into action by changing how international development organizations set strategies, develop policies, allocate resources, develop capabilities, and change their ways of working to reflect these values.

MEDA has demonstrated how committing to localization and investing in organizational change can transform how it works. As a result, it can shift power and accountability to our local teams and partners.

Investing in localization efforts means investing in a future that prioritizes equitable partnerships and sustained positive social change. This is a vision MEDA is actively working to achieve.

The Storehouse is always filled with engaging content – keep exploring how MEDA is working to support entrepreneurs and farmers with the skills and resources they need to build prosperous businesses and livelihoods.

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Authors

  • Steve Cumming

    Steve Cumming is MEDA’s Director of Strategy and Planning where he is responsible for overseeing MEDA’s annual planning process and supporting priority change initiatives linked to MEDA’s strategy. An international development professional with more than 15 years of experience, Steve led the design, implementation, and governance of a portfolio of economic development, skills, workforce, and labor market programs. He has expertise in portfolio design and governance, strategy development, and organizational transformation.

  • Sophia Amstutz

    Sophia Amstutz is MEDA's Strategy & Impact Coordinator. Sophia works closely with staff across all divisions in this role to further advance MEDA's strategic goals through initiatives and workstreams. As a graduate of Gender & Social Justice and Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Sophia is passionate about women's economic empowerment and localization efforts in the international development sector.

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