Image from the International Peace Observatory, a Colombian Peacebuilding organisation

Development actors may avoid local ownership because of the potential risks it can bring, and because of a belief in the technocratic expertise they bring with them. However, to avoid local ownership, not only risks fuelling tensions by favouring certain groups over others, but also means missed opportunities for local ownership to contribute to sustainable peace.

In 1999, Mary Anderson published her book, ‘Do No Harm,’ in which she highlighted the potential benefits and harm that aid can bring to fragile or conflict-prone settings. Since the 1990s, development actors have become increasingly aware of the potential harm they can inadvertently cause, leading to the development of policies and strategies for implementing conflict-sensitive development.

The challenge, Anderson argues, is for development organisations to act without undermining local capacities, fostering dependency or distributing resources in a way which causes friction or funds further conflict. Conflict-sensitivity should be a thread informing the analysis of the conflict situation.

The relationship between local ownership and conflict-sensitivity

Since the 1990s, there has been a growing consensus that development projects should use a bottom-up, ‘locally-owned’ approach. However, while local ownership can help prevent further conflict, it can paradoxically also exacerbate the risk of further conflict. The challenge for development actors is to act, so as not to reinforce intergroup tensions or divisions, or to lose the trust of local communities.

Conflict-sensitive local ownership requires a good understanding of local dynamics and risk factors, and so an accurate and comprehensive conflict assessment, which forms a basis for the design of the project, is important. An understanding of local dynamics can be garnered through engaging local actors, which allows external actors to anticipate their potential impact.

In post-conflict and fragile societies with inherent divisions, there are likely to be a variety of different interest groups and potential local owners. Development actors can unintentionally do harm if they prioritise one group’s voice over another’s, or if local populations doubt their neutrality or trustworthiness. This could be overcome by involving those from all sides, including those traditionally marginalised; however, this can lead to different groups battling for their interpretation of the conflict to be accepted and legitimised. To determine whose voices to prioritise, development actors must research the identities and backgrounds of the various parties, and gradually build up the degree of local ownership as trust develops over time, so that they do not inadvertently work with only the most powerful and opportunistic local actors. Agencies must attempt to understand whether the priorities of the different groups adequately represent the interests of the wider community.

Development organisations often use ‘brokers’ with sometimes questionable neutrality to act as a link between themselves and the wider community.Aid providers must be thoughtful in finding community representatives, as even the most participatory projects lay down criteria which benefit certain groups (brokers or their beneficiaries) over others (often the more disadvantaged). An alternative is to use community meetings to facilitate wider public involvement, however these same “brokers” often set up such meetings, and determine who attends.

While local political elites provide a potential logical source of local ownership (often having leadership status and experience), they can be problematic. They may have obtained their positions by force, be unrepresentative, lack legitimacy and may have a vested interest in the continuation of conflict if it has proved lucrative for them. However, this could be countered by the prospect of material rewards through their commitment to peace.

Elections can be used to improve legitimacy, although these might also reinforce societal divisions. Alternatively, agencies can work with civil society groups, however these groups can be affected by the same divisions and dynamics as political elites and may be linked to political parties. This kind of local ownership, whilst empowering local actors, can paradoxically heighten the risk of violence by challenging existing systems of control.

Local ownership can improve conflict-sensitivity

The Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment offers local people the opportunity to discuss their concerns regarding the potential impact of development plans, and to jointly develop alternatives, providing empowerment through ownership. In post-conflict Liberia, one Community-Driven Development project resulted in greater involvement in participatory politics, improved community cohesion, social inclusion and democratic values and practices. Local ownership can allow local actors to develop a vested interest in sustainable peace, and enhance their legitimacy in the eyes of local communities, which can increase sustainable national capacity and hence security in the long-term.

Institutional and operational challenges

Although development agencies now routinely incorporate conflict-sensitivity and local ownership into their policies, certain attitudes within international development organisations can disempower local actors by ‘pathologising’ local populations and expecting them to adopt and implement the ‘prescriptions’ of donors and ‘experts’ uncriticallyUvin argues that “local perspectives are more often viewed as hurdles to be overcome or obstacles to be avoided than as potential sources of sustainable solutions.” This could result in missing information and opportunities important for enhancing conflict sensitivity. For example, engaging locals in the distribution of resources between groups can improve the understanding of development actors around local divisions.

Additionally, there is a tendency for development organisations to work with local actors who are willing or able to operate within the organisation’s developmental model, whilst shunning those who will not, regardless of the appropriateness of this partnership. This undermines conflict-sensitivity and neglects the fact that sustainable peace relies on the participation of those resistant to it.

The “one-size-fits-all approach” so prevalent amongst international donors values expert knowledge above context-specific knowledge. Factors such as timescales, budgets, political issues and pre-determined outcomes, can all undermine openness to local perspectives and solutions. Conflict-sensitive approaches can seem costly in terms of finance and human resources, however a re-emergence of conflict bears far greater costs. Anaccurate and comprehensive conflict analysis alongside local ownership, could ensure that conflict-sensitivity is not merely a paper policy exercise, but part of a sustainable, locally-owned peace.

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.