Skip to main content
USAID Contribution

‘Shift Power’ to Local Actors? A Collective Action Approach Lets Stakeholders Set Priorities and Take the Lead

Aug 12, 2022
Riley Abbott

In the mid 2010s, I got to work on a couple ethnographic research efforts asking, “how USAID might effectively partner directly with more local organizations and better enable the adaptive management of its awards?” In the research, I saw how major investments were sometimes left fallow because of little or no local engagement and heard stories of the frustration local organizations felt completing organizational capacity assessments required to partner with USAID. At the same time, I saw inspiring examples of Program Officers getting deep into communities and rolling up their sleeves to find ways to make space in awards and create internal networks to support grants and contracts for ambitious development efforts to grow. What became clear in this research was development progress happens and becomes sustainable when it is locally-owned, locally-driven, and when internal structures are aligned to support the local context and priorities. 

Development is capacity. Capacity is local. Local is place-based and relational. 

Of course meeting these criteria is not easy. This is especially true in an organizational culture (at USAID at least) that rewards and highlights rapid start-up, quick wins, technical solutions, and big impressive quantitative results. Yet aiming for these results often leaves unaddressed the intention to facilitate and foster local-ownership, inspire local leadership, and address local priorities which are often complex and outside the mandate of any one organization and with no perfect solutions.

The ongoing movement for Localization and Inclusive Development, intending to shift more resources directly to local organizations and empower marginalized populations, gives us (development practitioners) an opportunity to shift the way we design, implement, and measure progress in our programs. Right now at USAID, we are reflecting on our own mental models with questions about different sources of knowledge (acknowledging the value of engaging with different ways of knowing and interpreting the world), ways to be more humble and listen to diverse local voices, and how we might incorporate emergent and adaptive components into our activities to include things like inception phases, organizational learning, and process indicators targeting cohesion among diverse groups and network strengthening as outcomes in themselves.

These are all promising steps, but what can program teams, technical offices, and our partners do now and more holistically to promote local ownership, leadership, and accountability on complex challenges? 

Collective Action is worth consideration. While not appropriate for every context , Collective Action engages a broad group of interconnected stakeholders, creates democratic structures for deliberation and decision-making, uses effective processes to build consensus, puts local actors in control and accountable to one another, and helps to establish local ownership over a development challenge. 

New resources published this month on Learning Lab based on case study research suggests Collective Action programs are viable and effective for supporting localization and inclusive development at both project and activity levels. Given the surge of interest in Collective Action approaches in recent years, many USAID programs, agreement, and acquisition teams already have extensive experience working with this model. 

These new guides for Missions and local partners, produced by USAID’s iDesign Team in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning based on research led by Linc LLC, offer insights, practical design recommendations, factors to aim for during implementation, and references to additional resources. Taken together, these modules and the case study summaries comprise an entire self-directed learning resource to effectively design and manage Collective Action in the context of USAID programs.

In the coming weeks, we will feature blog posts from guest authors highlighting the content in these guides, the findings from the research, and connections to other USAID frameworks and approaches. If you follow along, you will see that the conditions for shifting power to local actors and fostering inclusion are gaining momentum, and there is already a wealth of resources and experience to build on. Indeed, the evidence in these guides do not represent the totality of experiences with Collective Action in USAID programs. We want to hear from you about your own insights using these approaches.

I hope that by consolidating our experiences and releasing these guides, the next generation of ethnographies exploring USAID’s partnering dynamics will uncover evidence of projects that are locally-owned, locally-driven, and more sustainable. 

Please share your thoughts, any resources you find helpful and links to current or closed projects and activities, and feedback on these guides as you get to know them to [email protected] with "Collective Action Feedback" in the subject line. We would love to hear from you. 

About the authors
Riley Abbott

Riley Abbott is a Senior Innovation Advisor in USAID's Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning, Office of Strategic and Program Planning (PPL/SPP) where he supports USAID teams and their partners with collaborative design and local system strengthening. He holds an advanced degree in sustainable urban planning and specializes in capacity development, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and applied research.