Q&A: Supporting locally led development through engaged communities

June 6, 2023
A family in Cambodia. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact.

For decades, organizations like Pact have been working to tackle big issues in the world—poverty, economic development, peace and security, infectious diseases, climate change and more. We’re all aiming to improve the state of the world. But in recent years, the global development community has been grappling with fundamental challenges, such as equity and inclusion, and how these issues are embedded in our sector. If we are committed to sustainable development, then we must also be committed to communities leading their own development. Here, Caroline Anstey, our President & CEO, discusses what this means at Pact and how it bolsters our impact.

Q: Pact’s guiding star is engaged communities. What does this mean?
A: When I joined Pact in 2020, I went on a listening tour, virtually due to Covid. I spoke with our country and regional leadership, technical experts and others. What came across clearly from all of these voices was the central importance of engaged communities, which is essentially communities that lead and own their own development.

As an organization, our roots are in capacity development. For more than 50 years, our staff, partners and communities around the world have worked together to support strong local organizations, networks and institutions so that they can achieve their goals and provide the support and services that their communities need. It is our history and foundation and is embedded in everything we do, from how we think about partnerships and write proposals to how we implement projects and measure results. A lot of things have changed at Pact over the course of five decades, but this has been a constant throughout much of that time. We’re building on the local promise that already exists in communities around the world so that they can thrive, be resilient and lead their own development.

Why do you think engaged communities is an important focus in international development?
There are a few reasons, but I’ll touch on two. The first is trust. Trust is eroding around the world, particularly in institutions and global bodies. Yet it remains strongest at the local level. It makes sense to have more leadership, more control and more funding in the hands of local organizations and communities.

The second is the need for sustainability. To have real sustainable development, long after organizations like Pact and international donors are gone, we must have communities in the lead. We don’t do a lot of direct implementation because we believe that supporting an ecosystem of strong local actors will lead to more sustainable impact in the long term. We only have about seven years before the Sustainable Development Goals expire and we’re nowhere close to achieving them, partially due to the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because we’ve been too late in having community leaders and voices at the table.

Is engaged communities related to the wider conversation on localization? How?
Yes, but I believe it goes beyond what most people think of when they talk about localization. A lot of the localization focus has been on funding. While access to direct funding is an important part of sustainability, it isn’t the only thing that matters. Is what is being done in the name of communities rooted in their needs and priorities? Are existing local systems being used to implement programs? Are community members involved in evaluating activities and adapting plans or altering course, if needed? A lot of these things are related to funding, but at the end of the day, being a direct recipient of funding doesn’t mean a community has a say in what is being funded or what systems are utilized. There needs to be a wider conversation around localization. I’m seeing it in some places, but not across the board.

We’ve seen the challenges that USAID has had achieving their localization targets. How is Pact approaching accountability?
This is one of the areas that I’m most excited about. With the help of our Learning and Evidence practice, we have designed an organizational key performance indicator to measure ourselves on our commitment to engaged communities. We want to know how those we serve view how engaged they are, figure out where we need to improve knowledge and skills, and take action to do better.

We look at engaged communities across a spectrum, from being wholly extractive—something we never want to be—to fully community led. Last year was the first year that we’ve collected this data from our projects, and we had four countries undertake pilots to dive deeper into the data as teams and with the communities they serve. While I’d love to see us achieve fully community led across the board, that isn’t realistic due to the scope of some projects and what stage they may be in. What our donors will and will not fund is also a key aspect of how fast and how far we can go. So, we obviously need to bring donors with us. Our goal isn’t to achieve a specific number, but to continuously improve where we can. We’ve learned a lot in the first year, including that we need to tweak our measurement tool. But I’m excited that we’re going to publish the results of our assessment later this month because we not only want to learn and do better as an organization, but we want to share our results so that others can learn from us.

Speaking of learning, what advice would you give to other organizations that want to undertake an effort like this?
Make it real, make it actionable, make it measurable.

A lot of people are talking about localization and locally led development, and there are organizations out there that have been doing this for a while and have served as examples for us—the Movement for Community-led Development, which Pact is proud to be a member of, is perhaps the best example. There are also great resources out there for organizations to leverage. It isn’t an easy undertaking, but if we are all committed to sustainable development, we need to also be committed to communities being in the lead.