Summer School: Local Ownership

by: Tamya Rebelo

Empowering local communities has been an important goal of international agencies’ policies and programs designed for post-conflict societies. Although “the locals” were at some point perceived as sites of resistance of international aid, currently practitioners and policy makers both emphasize the ways in which peace grows out of these communities and the challenges of their absence in political processes. Despite the fact that “local ownership” has been addressed as a key component of peace building initiatives, several questions remain unanswered: who are the locals? To what extent can they make their own decisions regarding the implementation of developmental strategies?

As already noted, increasing local’s participation in the design and implementation of political activities is often considered crucial to restore the population’s own identification with their institutions. In academia, several arguments tend to persist. The dominant form is liberal: democracy, economic liberalization and human rights are all interconnected. According to this agenda, if people act according to policies and programs based on this liberal framework, they will achieve peace. On the other hand, the communitarian approach specifically links local participation to improvements in post-conflict environments. A key thread running through both arguments is that the local context is important and individuals need to be involved during the implementation of political systems. Being sensitive to the local context is considered a crucial step towards strengthening the legitimacy of peace building initiatives.

Donors and international aid agencies propose solutions mainly based on these liberal parameters, which does not imply that individuals will make their own decisions or feel connected to the policies being implemented. In the same sense, increasing local participation in formal and informal processes also raises questions about to what extent the locals will be able to choose for themselves, how to deal with resistance if the end result is not democracy. This theoretical debate helps us to systematize our thoughts and gives a good first guidance to understand the complexities of “local ownership”. This topic has been treated as an umbrella that holds together all the ingredients in need for the local communities’ acceptance of international aid, but it by no means reflects all the nuances of post-conflict society’s realities. Limited and sporadic participation, for instance, can undermine the political process because individuals have different interests and perceptions of the conflict and peace initiatives.