One of the changes we have seen in ‘international development’ over the past 10-15 years or so is the focus on true partnerships between local partners and those from outside of the local region. Historically there was often a perspective that international or Western ‘developed’ governments, agencies and organizations had all of the ‘knowledge’ to address challenges elsewhere in the world. Although still far from perfect, there is a growing awareness that to have an effective and sustainable international development effort, the knowledge, interests , leadership and commitment of the local and international partners have to be aligned.

My experience working in the ‘social impact’ sector over the past decades has led to a belief that there are no such thing as ‘best practices’ (although there may be ‘good practices’) or ‘one right way’ to do something. Rather the most effective approaches come from learning from a variety of sources and adopting a customized approach that works best in a local situation. Increasingly we have the resources (with the internet being a huge help in making resources more accessible around the globe) to learn from others in order to customize our own approaches. Unfortunately, however, there often still is a sense that we have to do things in one way because it has worked elsewhere. Rather than looking at this ability to ‘pick and choose’ and customize as an important process we often see it presented as a false dichotomy – go with the small, local for sustainability, or scale because it leads to greater impact and effectiveness.

Projects can be locally-led and in alliance with others to ‘scale’ or at least iterate and share learnings to implement ideas elsewhere. I have been encouraged by some recent approaches I have seen to try and combine these approaches – Wiser Earth and Helping Babies Breathe are two examples of projects that keep the focus on the local, with an international framework to help local entities draw the benefits of learning from their peers in often wide-ranging and fluid communities of practice. When I work with organizations that are looking to share (or ‘scale’) good ideas, I encourage them to try and limit what needs to be ‘core’ , so as to allow greater leeway for what can be customized locally.

Think globally and act locally continues to be a useful mantra if we can continue to move in the direction of determining the role each partner will play in an effective partnership. It is not partnerships we should do away with, but outmoded ideas of who should be playing what role and how those roles will be played.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.