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Community Contribution

Locally Led Development: Engaging Local Stakeholders in Building An Evidence Base

Sep 29, 2020
USAID Office of Local Sustainability

Authors: The Office of Local Sustainability Evidence and Learning Team (Danielle Pearl, Amanda Satterwhite, Colleen Brady, Elliot Signorelli, Cydney Gumann, Paul Vincelli, and KC Das)

For two months in the Spring of 2020, the Office of Local Sustainability's Evidence and Learning Team invited staff from across USAID to join us in exploring how the Agency approaches its generation and use of evidence from the perspective of locally led development. Our seven-part Standards of Evidence for Locally Led Development series brought together eight expert presenters and more than 670 participants to engage in conversations ranging from scientific research to complexity-aware monitoring to ethical considerations when conducting research. 

This blog post outlines some of our key learnings from the series and introduces the topics covered by each presenter. We encourage you to explore the event resources and share your own takeaways in the comment section below.


In 2019, under the Office of Local Sustainability’s Broad Agency Announcement for Locally Led Development Innovation, we issued a global call for potential partners to co-create with us on a range of topics relating to advancing knowledge and practice of locally led development. Our five co-creation workshops with 81 organizations and their partners from around the world placed special emphasis on generating credible, rigorous research and evidence; however, our review of the eventual submissions revealed important opportunities to strengthen future calls for research and development proposals. 

As the team turned to next steps, we asked ourselves: how can we ensure that we are building a base of evidence and practical knowledge in a way that meets local development priorities, enhances local capacity, and engages local actors as end-users of that evidence? These were not questions with easy answers, but we knew we were not alone in seeking to answer them. And so the idea for the Standards of Evidence webinar series was born!


All of the presentations shared a common focus on enhancing both the effectiveness and the local leadership of development activities. The three questions at the heart of our efforts to make development more locally led - whose priorities are driving the agenda? whose capacities are engaged in bringing about desired change? whose resources are enabling change to happen? - can be asked about every facet of USAID’s work. 

These efforts recognize that when local people and organizations are empowered to lead in making decisions about their own development, their capacity and commitment are enhanced and outcomes are more likely to be sustained. Striving for greater local leadership in the realm of research and evidence generation raises its own challenges, from calling into question the power dynamics of expertise, the valuing of local knowledge and feedback, accountability to local people for the use of their data, the accessibility of decision-making processes in which data and evidence are used, and so much more. 

Three key themes emerged from the series: 

  1. Practitioners should draw on a wide range of evidence to inform locally led development programming.
    Our first presenter, Dr. P. V. Sundareshwar from the Global Development Lab’s Center for Development Research, introduced USAID’s Scientific Research Policy and highlighted the important role scientific research plays in building a reliable evidence base. During the presentation, he said: “Generally, the perception of research at USAID is that it’s pretty esoteric and it sits outside of what we want to do in terms of programming. But it might surprise you that many operating units at USAID actually invest in research because it helps them achieve their objectives. Evidence can come from multiple different places, it could be experiential evidence, it can come from peer learning, or research..with research-evidence being particularly critical for designing impactful solutions.”

    Another presenter, Dr. Paul Vincelli of the University of Kentucky Department of Plant Pathology, one of two Jefferson Science Fellows with the Office of Local Sustainability this past year, discussed the diverse types of evidence that could be applied to development programming. This included Randomized Control Trials (RCTs), meta-analyses, systematic reviews, and other analytical tools used by natural scientists or social scientists. His recommendation to the audience was that: “…diverse approaches to gathering and assessing evidence may all have value in different contexts, in different disciplines, for different questions.”

    Dr. Jennifer Kuzara, a Senior MEL Specialist with USAID’s Expanding Monitoring and Evaluation Capacity (MECap) contract, introduced three theory-based approaches that can help to build evidence in complex environments where assigning attribution between an intervention and a result may be difficult. According to Jennifer, these approaches, which include contribution analysis, process tracing, and realist evaluation, can help answer questions, like: “…under what conditions and for whom will these linkages hold true? And under what conditions and for whom might they not hold true?”

  2. Local actors can provide important contextual knowledge throughout the life of your research programs.
    Tjip Walker from the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL/P) emphasized how complicated and complex our development programming is, which requires development practitioners “to develop a locally grounded and locally relevant theory of change that is reflective of that particular situation.” Because of this, evidence generated in one context, commonly referred to as “best practices,” might not easily translate into a different context. Tjip emphasized the importance of testing assumptions, monitoring changes, and adapting throughout the design and implementation of activities, but doing so in a way that reflects the voices of local actors.

    Tania Alfonso from PPL/LER encouraged the audience to always ask: “For whose hypothesis, and for whom does this intervention, this theory of change, work?” She went on to provide examples of how bringing in local voices may be able to identify if interventions are having uneven success across target beneficiaries.

    And Dr. KC Das, another Jefferson Science Fellow in the Office of Local Sustainability, spoke about the importance of bringing local actors in early and often. He said in his presentation: “…the more local people...are involved in the design, the higher degree of the context detail appears...” 

  3. Prioritize local actors as the end users for your evidence to help them build their own self-reliance and increase sustainability of your program’s outcomes.
    Dr. Derek Simon shared how USAID/Cambodia’s Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) development process established feedback loops as part of their stakeholder engagement by ensuring notes from their public forums were shared back with participants. According to Derek, this would allow them to “…use their own notes and their own work for their own advocacy and research purposes.”

    And Dr. Joe Amick from the Global Development Lab’s Office of Evaluation and Impact Assessment (Lab/EIA) shared how his office’s partnership with a local research institute in Uganda helped to enhance the knowledge of local actors. Joe said: “…at the end of the day, at least half of the research team is staying in the local country. And they’re going to be able to keep this information for themselves and put it into their next project or their next activity.”


For the Office of Local Sustainability, the Standards of Evidence series reinforced our conviction that both credible evidence and local leadership are critical to achieving lasting results and advancing self-reliance. Reflecting on how USAID creates and uses evidence from this perspective compels us to consider new areas in which we need to expand and deepen the evidence base supporting our practice of locally led development.

Under the auspices of the Local Works Program, we will continue to gather experience and evidence to expand the evidence base for locally led approaches to development, and to advance broader discussions in international development around aid effectiveness, local ownership, and how to achieve lasting change that is sustained by local people, using local resources and capacity, beyond the end of aid.

We will support the creation and utilization of new knowledge to enhance the effectiveness and the local leadership of development. In the near future, we will do so by:

  • Advancing the development community’s knowledge of locally led development through a blend of research, utilization of performance reporting, evaluations (including ex post), and other methods;
  • Co-developing relevant practices and tools for broader uptake in development programs;
  • Developing new and more effective ways to facilitate evidence use by USAID, our partners, and the communities we serve. 

We hope you will stay tuned for these future efforts, and welcome your feedback at: [email protected]