Reflections on planning for Local Ownership

Published on September 16, 2014 | Categorised in: Uncategorized

“After nine months in the country, the four person advisory team, made up of two South Koreans, a Japanese and a Singaporean, of the Asean Assistance Mission in Switzerland (AAMIS), have started urging the Swiss government to take more ownership of their immigration and naturalization policy.” Likely scenario? Not really? We expect the Swiss authorities not to have relinquished ownership of important policy issues to an international assistance mission. So why then is ‘local ownership’ an apparent problem in several other countries where there is strong international assistance presence? If it is because the external assistance actors have ‘taken over’, then weak local ownership seems to be a self-generated problem?

Recently, IPAT made its now regular contribution on ‘local ownership’ to the annual Swiss Peacebuilding Training Course (in the town of Stans), that brings together some 25 participants from different countries. ‘Local ownership’ is one of the strategically most important, but complex, challenges in international cooperation, especially in fragile situations. This is well recognized in the policy discourse. Yet when it comes to practice, it is still largely an afterthought. Now in its 15th year, the topic only entered the course agenda three years ago, and is allocated no more than 80 minutes in a two-week programme.

A fictional scenario running through the course is that of a significant UN Mission in ‘Mikeland’ (UNMIM), following years of identity- and resource-based violence, and a negotiated peace agreement. Participants are presented with different practical challenges. The IPAT-led session chose to work with this scenario, and presented the course participants with the task of beginning to plan for ‘local ownership’, once the security situation in Mikeland had stabilized and governance-reforms (constitutional reform, elections, decentralization, promotion of women in public life etc.) were coming onto the agenda.

This is a critical moment in which the international actors need to step back from ‘doing’, ‘leading’, ‘exercising pressure’, ‘focusing on gaps’ and promoting international ‘models’, and ‘norms and values’, to allow the space for a wide spectrum of societal actors – in Mikeland or elsewhere- to engage with each other around critical governance issues. The role of international actors then shifts towards being a connector promoting inclusion, possibly a convener, possibly a process- and event-facilitator, with particular attention to mitigating the asymmetries between local stakeholders (asymmetries resulting from differences in formal authority, social status, economic wealth, knowledge and expertise, self-confidence, degree of organisation etc.). Broad ‘real participation’ is needed to break through the tendency of elites to protect their own interests, and to build broad-based support for governance-related reforms in the public interest.

The difficulty of making the shift from externally driven ‘project-based’ thinking, to creating space for local actors to shape and drive the agenda, manifested itself in the exercise around the issue of women’s participation in public life.  The plan proposed was for “The UN Mission in Mikeland to encourage more girls to go to school, do a needs assessment among Mikelander women, and ‘empower’ them through a series of training courses.” Turn UNMIM into AAMIS, replace ‘Mikelander women’ with ‘Swiss women’ and reread the sentence. Is this likely to be a very effective approach in Switzerland? Probably not; it seems a rather too simplistic way of dealing with often deeply embedded gender-roles that men and women are also socialized into. So why do we think such ‘project-thinking’ approaches will work in other countries like Mikeland? And where were the male and female ‘Mikelanders’ (or Swiss) shaping the approaches, based on their in-depth understanding of the sensitivities around this issue in their own society, and how to navigate those?

The question can be asked in how many situations with a significant international ‘assistance’ presence, a timely and deliberate effort is undertaken to ‘plan for broad local ownership’? Given that in another IPAT-led course 16 international advisors affirmed that they work on issues of highly public interest, yet acknowledged that there was overwhelmingly little public participation, it seems fair to speculate that this is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps ‘planning for local ownership’ merits more attention than it currently gets?


Koenraad Van Brabant