Politics of Poverty

When local leaders speak, we need to listen: USAID puts forward its vision

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Mohamed Fogrin of JMK, a network of Indonesian organizations that Oxfam partners with, shares a laugh with members of a women's group that helped their community recover from the powerful Sulawesi earthquake of 2018. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

The latest localization push at USAID is promising.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has a new vision for global development: make foreign assistance more accessible, more equitable, and more responsive to the people it aims to support. Like much of the international aid community, it has recognized that the old attitude toward people affected by poverty and disasters—they have the problems, we have the answers—makes for terrible policy.

And the Agency may be poised to put its money where its mouth is. In recent months, USAID has released its new Local Capacity Strengthening Policy and the draft Policy for Localization of Humanitarian Assistance. The concept of localization is at the core of both.

While there are fierce debates over the definition of the term, in its draft Policy Framework USAID describes localization as a process of giving direct funding to local organizations, providing opportunities for local leadership, and enabling the participation of local communities at all stages of humanitarian and development programming. (How USAID ultimately defines which organizations count as "local" is a critical piece of the puzzle.)

Why localize aid and promote local leadership? Because organizations that are rooted in communities experiencing crises have the clearest picture of what’s needed and what remedies will and will not work, so when they speak, the rest of us need to listen.

Elevating the power, influence, and visibility of local and national NGOs and their role as the most important actors in the design and implementation of foreign aid programs presents a challenge to cherished assumptions about the superiority of Western elites and their capacity to solve problems in contexts they know little about. By embracing a local-leadership approach, USAID can ensure that millions of people struggling with poverty and disasters have a stronger voice in the kind of aid they receive, and opportunities to be full participants in the process.


The concept of localization is nothing new. Previous USAID administrators Rajiv Shah and Mark Green started down the road to localization, but the weight of tradition thwarted their good intentions. What gives us hope that the new policies will be more successful is that Administrator Samantha Power has not only committed to changing the way the Agency engages with local communities but also to clear targets: Within four years, USAID will provide 25 percent of its funding directly to local partners. Within 10 years, local communities will be in the lead—setting priorities and driving implementation—in 50 percent of USAID programs.

Hitting these targets would make the US a world leader in transformational foreign assistance, not simply committing to give a hand to millions of people struggling with poverty and disasters but to giving local and national leaders the support they need to lead the way.

USAID is providing new clarity, energy, and direction for the aid and development community, and we welcome it. In its draft Policy Framework, the Agency is repositioning itself as a champion of and catalyst for inclusive and locally led aid and development, and for devolving leadership and ownership to local actors.

The new policies show a genuine interest in making the global humanitarian and development systems and structures more effective and more equitable for those caught in crisis and poverty. And as a major humanitarian donor to crises worldwide, USAID is setting an example for how other donors can make the most of increasingly scarce foreign assistance.

It looks like USAID’s journey to meaningful localization has begun in earnest.


Traditional leaders like donors, INGOs, and the United Nations must acknowledge their limitations and ease their grip on power and resources. Many organizations—including Oxfam—are attempting this, but we have a long way to go. (Read about Oxfam’s work on local humanitarian leadership.)

We know what we need to do. Listen to the needs and priorities of local people. Fund local organizations and institutions. Take the time to understand what is working, what is not, and why. Be honest about successes and failures along the way. Keep striving for transformative, sustainable improvements. And be careful not to fall back into the old ways of working, where international donors and organizations call almost all the shots in foreign assistance, and often get it wrong.

The paradigm of aid and development has been undergoing a long, slow shift toward local leadership. The release of the new USAID policies represents a milestone, and an important one. What was once a murmur of dissent from the sidelines is now loudly, clearly the voice and view of the mainstream.

Stakeholders are weighing in on the draft Policy for Localization of Humanitarian Assistance, and the Agency, we hope, will listen carefully to the input of local organizations. The steps forward on policy are encouraging. Now—to translate them into progress in struggling communities around the world.

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