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Community Contribution

Harnessing Local Knowledge for Sustainable Development

Jan 04, 2024
Adrian Rivera-Reyes, Ph.D.

Integration of local knowledge into humanitarian and development programming has become increasingly recognized as a catalyst for effective and sustainable progress. Two influential reports, the USAID report titled "Integrating Local Knowledge in Development Programming" (2022) and CARE International's report titled "Integrating Local Knowledge in Humanitarian and Development Programming: Perspectives of Global Women Leaders" (2023) shed light on the importance of centering local actors. Below we will highlight key insights from both reports, including common themes and areas where CARE International's report expanded upon USAID’s.

The USAID team established a learning agenda from which they developed a questionnaire with room for open-ended conversations to collect and synthesize insights and lessons learned from interviewees. The team made an open call for participants and identified 25 development organizations from across the world. CARE International’s team adapted the methodology developed by the USAID team and modified the questions to be more apt for use with grassroots women leaders across the world. CARE International interviewed women leaders from 29 organizations across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Given the nature of the work done by the research team at CARE International, many of the experiences shared by the global women leaders are focused on prevention, mitigation, and response to gender-based violence (GBV).

CARE International's report distinguishes itself by examples from global women-led grassroots organizations and concrete recommendations for donors and development agencies rooted in the knowledge of local communities. These expansions enrich the discussion on local knowledge integration in development, providing practical insights and actionable strategies for development organizations.

USAID's report delves deep into the ethical considerations and power dynamics surrounding local knowledge integration. It challenges organizations to confront these complexities. Additionally, USAID's report explores resource control and the role of donors in shaping development agendas, highlighting the need for power shifts.

USAID and CARE International’s findings share common themes such as defining local knowledge, empowering and engaging local community stakeholders, challenges in integrating local knowledge and more. A key difference is participants' background. While USAID’s report includes participants from local organizations, international NGOs and donors, CARE International’s report exclusively focuses on women-led grassroots organizations.

Shared Themes

Defining Local Knowledge: The reports unequivocally emphasize the significance of local knowledge in development programming. Given that local knowledge can present itself in different forms, many of which cannot be captured by quantitative metrics, USAID’s report underscores the importance of being flexible with terminology and to communicate knowledge in ways that resonate with local actors. Similarly, CARE International’s report establishes three distinct but connected definitions generated by grassroots leaders that include 1) knowing what a community is like; 2) knowing what a community needs and where the solutions lie; and 3) having a profound connection with the community.

Community Empowerment: USAID emphasizes the importance of recognizing local communities as pivotal actors in their development processes. CARE International echoes this sentiment and provides examples of specific local knowledge stakeholders seen as critical, including women and girls, older community members, traditional leaders, and local governmental and nongovernmental actors, among others. 

Challenges in Integration: Participants in the reports candidly acknowledged the challenges associated with the integration of local knowledge into development practices. USAID touches on the obstacles posed by power dynamics, biases, and the need to validate local knowledge. CARE International expands on these challenges and offers a list of 16 recommendations for donors and development agencies to address them (listed at the end).

Case Studies and Examples: USAID and CARE International showcase how local knowledge, when harnessed effectively, can lead to successful community-led initiatives and programming that achieves results and is sustainable. The numerous examples in their reports provide readers with tangible insights into the transformative potential of local knowledge. Below are two examples, one from each report:

  • USAID: In a project from Solidaridad Network to address an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease by animals moving between markets, the local community developed their own solution to create a roadblock at a popular fish market and dispense disinfectant since they knew that almost everyone bought fish in that area. The community members managed the roadblock themselves and, within two months, stopped outbreaks from occurring. 
  • CARE International: In one example from Iraq, girls lacked access to schools. A local Iraqi organization solved the problem by using their local knowledge around social norms that were opposed to girls riding bikes to raise awareness and change parents’ thoughts around girls cycling. This allowed for girls to bike to school, which led to an increase in girls obtaining their education. 

Power Dynamics: Both reports discuss power dynamics between communities and donors as well as intra-community power dynamics. Participants expressed the need to not allow the loudest or most powerful voices in a community be the only voices heard. Participants encouraged donors and non-local organizations to make the effort to speak to different community members, including the most disadvantaged members. USAID’s report highlights the intricacies of power within and between organizations and local communities. The report poses reflective questions about the distribution of power, localization, and the risk of tokenism. It challenges development organizations to confront these power dynamics in their work. CARE’s report also highlights power tensions between local and national organizations, reminding readers that to consult only with a national-level organization is not the same as working with a truly grassroots actor with specific knowledge of local context.

Resource Control: USAID's report provides an examination of resource control and its implications for local knowledge integration. It acknowledges the role of donors in determining development agendas and emphasizes the need to shift power to local communities by involving them in all stages of program development. This focus on resource control adds a crucial dimension to the discussion. Participants in CARE International’s report shared that while international actors have become more inclusive by inviting them to international conferences and events, in certain cases, their participation in these events is still often not funded. This lack of financial support can undermine the genuine inclusion of local actors and may be perceived as performative. 

Extractive Practices: USAID’s report frames extractive practices from organizations as part of what preserves power imbalances. CARE international’s report provides many examples and anecdotes in which the participants expressed frustrations with international actors as they often seek information from local community members but do not follow-up to let participants know how their knowledge is being used and also do not involve community members in project implementation.

Addressing Biases: USAID's report explores biases within development practices. It acknowledges that development practitioners may bring their biases to their work, which can hinder project success and harm community relationships. But also the report emphasizes the importance of addressing these biases within communities and local actors to avoid upholding power structures that disadvantage others in the community based on their identities, highlighting the complexity of this issue.

In conclusion, both the USAID and CARE International reports converge in their recognition of the invaluable role of local knowledge in international humanitarian and development programming and the necessity of community empowerment. They share common themes related to the importance of local knowledge, the challenges faced in its integration, and the imperative of addressing power dynamics and biases. While USAID’s report lays a crucial foundation for understanding the role of local knowledge in development, CARE International's report expands upon this foundation by providing practical insights and tools. Together, these reports offer a more comprehensive picture and guide for development practitioners, showcasing the transformative potential of local knowledge and demonstrating how it can lead to more inclusive, equitable, and effective development efforts.

Recommendations to Donors and Development Agencies by Women Led Organizations and CARE International

  • Identify local leaderships and networks before entering a community
  • Enter a community together with a member of the community
  • Work with truly local organizations. 
  • Maintain partnerships even when there is not a project or proposal at hand and create spaces for critique. 
  • Stop bringing in outsiders where they aren’t needed.
  • Be flexible.
  • Understand the specific language and terminology used in a community. 
  • Include grassroots actors at various types of events and discussions. 
  • Provide funding and visa support for local actors’ participation in international conferences and events.
  • Provide feedback whenever possible. 
  • Be aware of local power dynamics within communities. 
  • Avoid extractive practices.
  • Stop practicing “donor propaganda.”
  • Right-size the bureaucratic requirements, restrictions, and conditions.
  • Use a fair approach to calculating overhead costs for local organizations, including salaries. 
  • Invest in networks of solidarity.

For more information about the recommendations, please refer to CARE International’s report

About the authors
Adrian Rivera-Reyes, Ph.D.

Adrian Rivera-Reyes, Ph.D., is a Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning Advisor (KMOL) in the Bureau for Planning, Learning and Resource Management in the Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research (PLR/LER). Adrian co-leads the development of an Agency-wide KMOL strategy, which includes USAID's inaugural development and operational policies on KMOL. Adrian led the group of interns that developed the USAID report titled "Integrating Local Knowledge in Development Programming".