Beyond the partnership: A learning journey to catalyzing locally led development

Locally led development is not only the right thing to do, but also the best way to achieve broad-based, long-term results. Local communities should be the ones in charge of their own futures, and they bring innovation insights, resources and connections that can scale and sustain business and development solutions. For this to happen though, there needs to be a significant change in how global development works.

At ACDI/VOCA, we’ve gleaned five practical lessons for advancing locally led development to lead scaled and sustained impact. These ideas are built on the fact that partners have ideas that work in local contexts; partners have the influence to scale changes in the system; and partners have the capacity to adapt and sustain ideas.

Recommendation #1: Apply a “Systems Change” Framework to Project and Activity Design

Shifting power to local partners requires development partners, including donors and organizations that implement donor-funded projects, to prioritize partner voices when designing and implementing activities. To put this into practice, the Market Systems Diagnostic Tool can be used to understand the whole market system and identify where to intervene. This tool, developed by ACDI/VOCA, allows for scalable, sustainable and impactful systems change that leads to more competitive, inclusive and resilient outcomes.

For example, in Colombia, the USAID-funded Youth Resilience Activity underwent co-creation through Whole Systems in a Room Workshops with over 300 partners from 31 municipalities. Participants strengthened their capacity in adaptive systems thinking and learning and came to understand the value of the data they were collecting and the ability of the system to absorb and make informed decisions.

Recommendation #2: Take Diverse Approaches with Local Partners 

Unfamiliarity can be a barrier to entry. Because of this, steps must be taken to ensure our systems don’t exclude potentially catalytic local partners from participating and leading change. Instead, we must focus on what partners need to succeed.

In Honduras, the USAID Transforming Market Systems Activity took this into account by establishing distinct partnership modalities based on the characteristics of their partners and the likelihood of them leading transformational change. This paved the way for local partners to be successful in ways that align with their own interests and abilities, with development partners adding value to the partners’ ideas.

To institutionalize local systems strengthening, we must consider streamlined requirements and project cycle processes that are more attractive and accessible to local partners. These modalities include the following:

  • Accompaniment: Both parties implement coordinated activities with a shared objective. For example, a project may share the cost of a consultant. (A shared project work plan is typically established, and a Memorandum of Organization is signed.)
  • Direct Agreement: Both parties sign an agreement. For example, signing an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) agreement would allow the project to incrementally fund different activities with the same partner over time.
  • Multi-stakeholder alliances: Multiple parties, such as private firms, donors, public institutions or industry bodies, sign joint alliances. These parties may pool funds for the same activities or fund different yet coordinated activities.
  • Cohorts: One party signs an agreement with a cohort of partners who share similar ideas. Partners start and end activities simultaneously (though they may take place in different areas) and have deliberate learning spaces for peer-to-peer knowledge exchange.

Recommendation #3: Implement Openness throughout the Process

Openness, in this context, refers to being inclusive of diverse partners, approaches and fast learning. Rather than focusing on the solution, we focus on goals, giving flexibility and space for multiple solutions to develop. We also recognize the need for a coalition of partners innovating and approaching challenges in different but coordinated ways. This new meaning of openness involves:

  • Giving space for local partners to try new ideas, even if they are fundamentally different than our own;
  • Allowing local partners to learn and adapt when their ideas fail;
  • Expanding the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed;
  • Avoiding highly defined problem statements and highly prescriptive scopes of work; and
  • Being mindful of unintended outcomes.

Recommendation #4: Apply Gender and Social Inclusion Tools and Tactics because it Makes Business Sense to Ensure Diverse Participation and Ownership

Gender and social inclusion tools and tactics are essential to reduce barriers, identify power structures, improve social dynamics and create environments where people can thrive while ensuring we “do no harm” to participants. It is essential to engage local partners that are both responsive to the needs and goals of women, youth and other populations and interested in including them as part of their core business models.

For example, the Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment highlights the necessity to identify and align private sector and development interests for inclusion. In Honduras, the USAID Transforming Market Systems Activity did so through a Private Sector Landscape Analysis, which the project used to uncover where local partners had interests in engaging women and youth.

Recommendation #5: Take a Systems Approach to Measuring and Strengthening Local Partners’ Capacity 

Measuring success means looking not only from the development perspective, but also the business perspective and considering what broader implications these metrics may have on the market system.

Helping partners incorporate data into their decision-making and develop new data management solutions can create feedback loops that provide ongoing evaluation, optimization and inclusivity.

To help them manage this, projects can develop tools and processes, like in Kenya, where the USAID Resilience Learning Activity worked with local counties to incorporate locally led data management into day-to-day service delivery. This strengthened performance and management of human capital investments and improved development outcomes for long-term growth.

Continuing the Conversation 

For long-lasting transformation to happen, our processes need to change so local partners can transform their own roles, abilities and power to contribute. Through projects in Kenya, Honduras and elsewhere, we see how strong relationships can develop with local partners if we emphasize systems thinking, use participatory and shared approaches and strengthen our collective capacity. These relationships birth innovative ideas, local ownership and sustainable change. But we are just at the beginning of this burgeoning conversation about how to make locally led development the norm.

This article was originally published by ACDI/VOCA