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Community Contribution

How To Foster Local Ownership for Improved Development Results: Collaborate, Learn, Adapt

Jan 24, 2020
Kristin Lindell

Imagine you’re tasked with designing a program that improves public service delivery to local communities in Uganda. You know that you need to engage local stakeholders for this program to be effective—without government buy-in and engagement, for example, service delivery changes will not be sustained. How would you go about doing it? 

When faced with this challenge, one implementing partner designed a platform, UBridge, to facilitate increased dialogue between local communities and their local leaders. By reporting and responding to incidents of compromised service delivery, community members and the government were empowered to solve their own problems. As a result, the government constructed boreholes for better water access, improved roads and mended bridges for access to markets, and added more classrooms to decrease crowding at schools. 

This offers an example of how local ownership can facilitate and sustain development results, but actually achieving local ownership over development efforts remains challenging, and raises an important question for international development donors and practitioners: how can we use our roles to intentionally and systematically foster local engagement and ownership? A recent review of the evidence on collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) and local ownership offers some answers: 

  • Local engagement leads to local ownership and, ultimately, improved development outcomes. Evidence from an in-depth case study on the Ebola crisis in Liberia, an in-depth case study on Community-led Total Sanitation in Zambia, and several CLA case stories demonstrates that when local stakeholders are engaged in defining development challenges and solutions via program activities, the results are more relevant to local needs and opportunities and are more effective than traditional donor-led approaches. This greater relevance and effectiveness in turn increases local stakeholders’ commitment to and engagement in identifying sustainable solutions to community challenges.
  • Bottom-up approaches contribute to better development results. A recent study analyzing about 10,000 development projects found that aid agencies achieve better results when using bottom-up approaches that empower frontline workers and organizations to make decisions based on their local knowledge and relationships. 

We have also always wondered what enables local ownership. Our synthesis of the evidence revealed these enablers:

  • Donor flexibility:  An analysis of seven case studies of development initiatives conducted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) found that features of the donor agency environment, such as flexibility and transparency, were significant in facilitating the success of politically smart, locally-led development initiatives.
  • Leadership support: In both of the cases explored in our in-depth case studies, active participation from a diverse range of leaders contributed to the overall success of the interventions.
  • Openness: None of the examples mentioned in the briefer would have been successful without donors and implementers actively convening local stakeholders and co-creating solutions with them.

Likewise, what are some of the barriers to local ownership we observed in the evidence?

  • Limited time for staff to pause and reflect on how to make improvements in the intervention.
  • Coordination challenges as the scope, scale, and speed of the Ebola crisis created a chaotic environment and made coordinating response efforts challenging.
  • Distrust and resistance to government and outsiders due to one country’s recent history of civil war, which left many communities distrustful of government authorities and suspicious of messages related to the program.
  • Sustainability challenges as one national government has been unable or unwilling to continue devoting resources to a Community-led Total Sanitation program after donor funding ended.

You might be wondering, “What CLA approaches can I use to increase local ownership and improve development results?” Try some of these: 

  • Identify which actors, including from among local stakeholders and the private sector, are most critical to achieving shared objectives. 
  • Facilitate conversations among those critical stakeholders to identify shared interests, co-create programming, and develop stronger relationships.
  • Generate and use evidence from, and in collaboration with, stakeholders that would be most useful to decision-making while also working with partners to strengthen their capacity to generate, share, and use evidence.

And lastly, don’t forget to tell us about your experience using CLA approaches to foster local ownership by leaving your comments below.