A Nepali engineer works with Ethiopian engineers to transfer knowledge through the South-South Cooperation Unit.  | © Helvetas / Hanspeter Bundi

Localizing Development: A Critical Look at Power Relations

BY: Esther Marthaler - 16. November 2023
© Helvetas / Hanspeter Bundi

Whether you call it the participation revolution, strengthening civil society or aid effectiveness, collaboration between donors, INGOs and national partners has long been at the heart of development cooperation, and is now further promoted by the OECD Development Assistance Committee. In humanitarian aid, the Sphere Standards require aid agencies to equally develop the abilities of people, organizations and society as a whole.

Development cooperation in Switzerland was established in the time of decolonization and was perceived as an act of solidarity. Still, power dynamics remain flawed. Proponents of today’s decolonization agenda argue that current practices and attitudes in the aid system mirror and are derived from the colonial era, with decision-making power still concentrated in economically strong Western countries. This shows that greater efforts and updated cooperation modalities are needed to turn words into action.

Localization in Nepal

In Nepal, as in many other program countries, Helvetas has a long history – almost 70 years, in this case – of working with national organizations, companies and the administration of the government. These partnerships are based on shared goals and principles, mutual understanding, and a high level of trust, and are often built up over decades of working together. Together with these partners, Helvetas emphasizes the primacy of responding to the needs and priorities of communities and key stakeholders, based on a sound understanding of the socio-political landscape and the communities they seek to serve. Often, we jointly advocate for locally led development and co-create projects.

In some cases, such as the construction and maintenance of trail bridges, over 70% of trail bridge construction in Nepal is now carried out by national government units, and trail bridge knowledge is nowadays being transferred from Nepal to other developing countries through the South-South Cooperation Unit.

At the same time, in Nepal new types of partnerships are also emerging with novel partners such as the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) or the University of Kathmandu, where both Helvetas and national partners dive into new issues together from the outset, co-create new projects, learn jointly and develop their capabilities, skills and knowledge together. Working hand-in-hand like this has contributed to a vibrant global civil society with competent and independent development partners in all sectors.

«10 years ago, INGOs or donors were providers and national NGOs were receivers. But nowadays, these partnerships provide a great space where we share a joint mission, as well as objectives and goals which we set together while finding the way forward collectively.»

Dr. Rabina Rasaily, Feminist Dalit Organisation of Nepal

Developing National Partners’ Humanitarian Response Capacities

In the field of humanitarian aid, Helvetas is strengthening the response capacities of national civil society organizations, while also building organizational systems and capacities. Such efforts are presently being carried out as part of a humanitarian initiative in Ukraine. Together with the NGO Resource Centre (NGORC), Helvetas supports small to mid-sized organizations to implement shelter interventions and to put the systems in place to secure larger portions of international funding in the future. With the nonprofit DESPRO, Helvetas is co-implementing a large shelter and WASH infrastructure program, which includes cash for house repairs and the rehabilitation of collective shelters for displaced persons, as well as repairs of water supply infrastructure in municipalities.

Since many Ukrainian organizations struggle to meet due diligence requirements for existing international funding channels, in our local partnerships specific attention is placed on enhancing donor compliance and financial capacity. In addition, technical sectoral advice is provided (e.g., for shelter repairs).

A Critical Look at Power Relations

The principles of localization and decolonization for effective development are undisputed, so it is beneficial for all actors to step back and take a critical look at power relations and the distribution of resources. Current debates on localization mostly revolve around increased local (direct) funding, strengthened national capacities, increased coordination, participation, strengthened national partnerships and increased local visibility and voice. This includes placing even greater emphasis on acknowledging, valuing and strengthening the decision power and capacity of civil society as well as leadership of local actors.

Furthermore, the collective voice of national and international NGOs holds significant importance in the development of national and international civil society networks. In these networks, all actors play their respective roles. Bringing people in civil society organizations together to drive positive change is gaining more and more importance as global crises escalate; for example, uniting this group to fight the climate crisis, to reduce the building of political blocks, and to raise the voice of people suffering under authoritarian regimes.

It is time to have a candid conversation about the issue of decolonization. For many years, the development community and donor nations have espoused their perceptions of progress and development and the process it should follow. However, countries may have their own culturally specific interpretation of what development entails in their context and knowledge systems. All perspectives need to be considered to achieve an honest analysis of power structures in both past and present contexts, which will inform how we move forward with tackling inequality and the transfer of power to local partners.

However, it must be acknowledged that this conversation is taking place with a backdrop of increasing fragility and volatile settings. The rise of authoritarian states and shrinking space for civil society are also posing new challenges to both humanitarian and development interventions.

Helvetas’ Approach to Partnership and Capacity Development

Helvetas has developed Partnership and Capacity Development Policies and Guidelines to ensure a systematic and reciprocal approach that fosters quality and systemic impact, as well as mutual capacity development. The partnership principles frame this intent and are at the core of every partnership formed since their development. Institutional minimum criteria and a toolbox also provide guidance to country programs on how to ensure quality partnerships with national actors.

Most Helvetas projects are executed in a consortium or in collaboration with national partners, involving many kinds of different institutional arrangements. Yet the landscape of possible national partners varies enormously between the different contexts. In some countries, there is a huge number of national organizations, private sector actors and state institutions that are capable, well positioned and free to engage in development programs. In such cases a collaboration is based on clear distribution of roles and all actors aiming for a joint goal together.

In some cases, Helvetas cooperates with socially and environmentally sound private sector partners to become internationally networked and increase their impact. These partnerships combine co-investment and core funding to test new funding mechanisms and models of resource mobilization, based on a long-term strategy.

In other contexts, more authoritarian governments limit the space of citizen engagement and strive for control over all development and humanitarian actors. Within these constraints, it is sometimes the international NGO who is the face of an intervention, thereby “protecting” the national NGO partner. These fragile situations also occasionally come with a limited civil society landscape and partner experience.

In fragile settings there is often a need to act quickly to respond to volatile situations; this is often not in line with donor and INGO procedures, which typically require long planning phases and don’t have the participatory practices in place to react quickly in fast-changing environments and to involve national partners in those pivots. In spaces where the organizational landscape and the experience of national partners is limited, it makes sense to opt for supporting national partners with adaptable core funding as well as flexible re-granting schemes. This supports investment in partners’ organizational and collective capabilities and agenda beyond a project’s scope.

It is not only Helvetas’ policy, the partners’ vision, and joint values that shape the nature of a partnership. Partnerships are also formed by donor regulations and legal preconditions in partner countries, which influence organizational culture, behavior and relationships between and among the different stakeholders. In terms of administrative pre-sets, it is important to consider how indirect costs or overheads for all partners are, or are not, included in project budgets; these templates are often provided by the respective donors. It is also imperative to respect the context and its specific priorities, ensuring enough flexibility is given to adapt to changed conditions and new or different needs.

Shifting Roles and Changing Perceptions

Many international initiatives, discussions and processes are currently working to advance locally led development, localization and decolonization. This provides the international NGO community (including donors and national partners) with the chance to elevate the discussion regarding the interpretation of development in their own respective circumstances about how to collaboratively tackle poverty, inequality and violations of human rights. Project methodologies are similarly adapting towards co-created and co-managed projects.

Helvetas is currently organizing workshops in several countries, including in Nepal, Tanzania and Senegal, where staff and partner organizations discuss their perceptions of partnership and localization and explore strategies for jointly improving policy and practices. At the same time, partnership, capacity development and locally led development are discussed internally with all departments to strategize how Helvetas as an organization can upscale its partnership and localization practices in its systems.

A workshop in Tanzania created a space for Helvetas staff and partners to discuss their perceptions of partnership and localization and explore strategies for jointly improving policy and practices.

Helvetas and other Swiss NGOs are also engaging in meetings and workshops to deliberate on these issues among themselves, as well as with donor organizations such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and private foundations that are interested in the matter. Helvetas also invites partner organizations to present their views in internal discussion forums, such as brown bag lunches in Switzerland. A regular newsletter provides updates on progress.

The roles of different actors are shifting, and international NGOs may increasingly become intermediaries and brokers of technical expertise, as well as facilitators of access to their international networks. This requires all stakeholders to have a willingness to critically reflect on their organizational culture, internal processes, hierarchy, leadership styles and cooperation models.

However difficult, this endeavor is worthwhile. A robust global civil society that is able to work on an equal footing with allies in government and the private sector is essential to finding answers to the challenges that confront us all. 

About the Author
Partnership & Capacity Development Coordinator

Partnership and Capacity Development

Sustainable change must be owned by national actors. Working in partnerships is a fundamental principle of Helvetas’ work.

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We strive for a fairer world in which everyone can fulfill their basic needs. We support people in taking charge of improving their livelihoods sustainably.