installation and assembly of a pump in Burkina Faso
Installation and assembly of a water pump in Burkina Faso

Locally-Led Development: What does this mean in practice?

Put simply, locally-led development is about power.

It refers to “initiatives owned and led by people in their own context” . Yet it is often dismissed in favour of international (and predominantly white) led approaches, even as our sector wakes up to its post-colonial roots.

Traidcraft Exchange works for greater trade and climate justice. We know it is when producers and workers take power into their own hands, that change happens. We are embarking on a transformation process to embed the principles of #ShiftThePower into the heart of our organisation.

We’re learning that transformation is not only about organisational structures, business models and funding streams. It requires a deeper shift in the way we see the world and our role in it. It requires us to give up some of our power to enable communities to lead. And we need to be prepared to take financial risks.

The journey is all-encompassing but exciting. Here are three questions we’re grappling with right now to achieve our goals:

How to redesign our governance to reflect our vision?

Like many international NGOs, our governance model is outdated and seems disconnected from our mission and values. It is effective in ensuring we meet our legal and regulatory requirements, but accountability to communities hasn’t been integral in the past.

Throughout our governance review, we’ve been asking what is the purpose of the board and how to make it representative to those we are trying to help? Our board urgently needs to become more diverse and inclusive. The structure of our governance needs rethinking so we can bring in a range of voices from local contexts.

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But we are also learning that unless trustees focus on our accountability to the communities we serve, we won’t see the fundamental change we so desperately need.

Programme approaches: Evolution or revolution?

Traidcraft Exchange has its roots in the alternative trade system. We support communities to organise, lead and represent themselves, to develop sustainable businesses and community safety nets. We’ve seen the impact of this work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the funding system is not designed to support these locally led approaches.

We believe partnerships should be equitable. Yet local organisations often become sub-contractors in international NGO-led programmes. The requirements of donors rarely align with partners’ ambitions. Should we continue to work within this funding model? Do we need to better define where the red lines are?

Last October, we took the difficult decision to stop applying for new donor contracts for a year. In stepping out of the race for funding, we created space to ask if there is an alternative way in which we could work.

We are now piloting a participatory grant-making approach in East Africa with grassroots producer groups, in which communities and local representatives decide who and what to fund. It is exciting to support a model in which communities set the agenda, design their own initiatives and make the decisions.

For Traidcraft Exchange, it is risky. We don’t know if funders will support these innovations. But income can no longer be a proxy for impact and we need to move beyond the sector’s obsession with growth.

How do we build an organisational culture congruent with our values?

Locally-led development recognises everyone should have a say in decisions affecting their lives. No one should be excluded. We need to mirror these values within our organisations, increasing staff diversity and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard.

At Traidcraft Exchange, we have restructured our senior management team so that it is no longer UK based, but spread across the different regions where we work. We aim to develop a culture of self-management so all staff are empowered to lead in their areas rather than deferring to a hierarchy for decision-making.

Cultural change is by far the most challenging part of transformation and the most critical. If we are to support communities to lead, we need to let go of our desire to control and manage their projects and activities. Our role is one of solidarity and support.

Change can be daunting. It requires trusting in our values and vision and having the courage and humility to keep questioning our assumptions. It isn’t easy but it is exciting.

Charlotte is co-chair for the working group Supporting Practice for Locally-Led Development.You can join the working group by contacting Lucy McCall.