Localisation: Beyond the Jargon.
Part 1: When aid instrumentalizes national actors, it undermines Sudan’s transition to durable peace
Local groups, including national NGOs, community-based organizations, unions, leagues, and informal associations, are the catalysts of change and development in Sudan. These are the creative and institutionally chaotic spaces where the full range of human interests are pursued – economic, political, ideological, social. They are not always independent, and may sometimes (intentionally or not) be tied to larger interests. However, these civic spaces have flourished over the past few years for the first time in decades, and have the potential to be the engine of Sudan’s ongoing transition to genuine peace. It is in these spaces that the future of Sudan will be shaped.
Within the aid sector, however, these actors are very often seen simply through the lens of ‘potential implementing partner’. Their value is perceived by international aid actors to be their ability to deliver the vision and strategy that was conceived elsewhere, whilst following the necessary bureaucratic and accountability measures put into place by donors and intermediary organizations.
This of course prioritises the vision and agency of the donor or strategizing agency at the expense of the local organization’s vision and agency. This is problematic in two big ways: first, it means that valuable ideas and contributions from local actors are not making their way into the aid discourse. While the international aid sector has much to contribute in terms of global theories, approaches and practices, it also struggles to constructively engage with diverse contexts and diverse sets of complex challenges, interact with different sets of networks, or meaningfully learn and adapt over time.
Second it can actually undermine the local organizations, and their ability to play their needed roles within Sudanese society. Many national organizations operate with minimal or no funding, relying on a dense complex web of social interactions, expectations, and norms around accountability and reciprocity. This is both the source of their very strength, and also the potential source of their downfall. The advent of funding starts to change the way these complex relationships work. Funding that is tied to short-term outputs that are not necessarily aligned with the organization’s interests, mandates, or constituency are particularly problematic. Such arrangements have the potential to co-opt local institutions and sets of relationships, pulling them away from their socially-useful purposes, and redirecting them toward some externally-driven goal. Well-meaning as the international aid sector’s goals are, they will seldom – if ever – be as contextualized and relevant as the actual goals of the local organizations themselves.
This is not to over-idealize the goals and objectives of local organizations across the board. Many will be self-serving, or promoting values that are not in line with the aid sector’s principles, or co-opted by other interests. But a rich, diverse, social sphere of national organizations that are able to identify and pursue their own agendas is fundamental for Sudan’s long-term transition. International aid actors who instrumentalize national organizations in pursuit of short-term gains to fulfil their own strategies and objectives are effectively co-opting them, and – in an increasingly polarized context – undermining their ability, and perceptions of their ability, to optimally represent and participate in the tremendously important social and political questions facing Sudan today.
This blog is part of a series of that seeks to understand what ‘localisation’ means in Sudan, without resorting to jargon.
For more resources on localisation in Sudan and elsewhere, you can explore the CSF Knowledge Hub, or dig into some of this article: https://www.csrf-southsudan.org/repository/localisation-and-conflict-sensitivity-lessons-on-good-practice-from-south-sudan/
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