Localization, decolonizing and #ShiftThePower; are we saying the same thing?
Localization, decolonizing and #ShiftThePower; are we saying the same thing?

Localization, decolonizing and #ShiftThePower; are we saying the same thing?

Dylan Mathews

Localization. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the term, sometime in early 2016. Someone called up the office and asked to speak to me. “I’ve heard that Peace Direct is interested in the localization agenda” the caller said. “Would you like to participate in some work we are doing on localization?” she continued. Working for an organization that had spent its entire life focused solely on supporting local efforts and in trying to change the international peacebuilding system in favour of locally led approaches, I wanted to shout back “INTERESTED? ARE YOU KIDDING? We’ve been committed to supporting local leadership FOR ALMOST TWO DECADES. And you’re just waking up to this NOW?” Suffice to say that I was mildly irritated and bemused by this freshly discovered fashion that had been thrust upon me; this newest, latest, shiniest thing.

Localization has been one of the buzzwords of the sector ever since it emerged from the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. Since then, the word has become so widespread that it is hard to keep track of all the working groups, initiatives and commitments around localization. Like it or loathe it, the term is now part of the mainstream conversation within the international humanitarian and development sector. In recent years it has been joined by other phrases, most notably “decolonizing aid” and shifting power to local communities, the latter very much inspired by #ShiftThePower campaign started by Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) in 2016. In some cases, webinars have been held and reports produced in which all three terms are used interchangeably, which raises two important questions. First, how do we differentiate the terms we are using? Do they really mean the same thing? Second, are these conversations about localization, shifting power and decolonizing a passing fad, something that will evaporate as quickly as it has emerged? Or is this a genuine trend towards a different way of thinking, working and seeing the world?

On the first question, there are many activists, local practitioners and organizations such as Peace Direct that are increasingly concerned by the conflating of terms. Take localization, for example, a term coined by organizations in the Global North to reform the humanitarian system. According to the UN, one of the pillars of localization is the “engagement of local actors in humanitarian coordination structures”, a statement which centres Global North actors and their decision-making power, rather than centring the Global South actors. It implies that Global South actors remain passive recipients of the discretionary goodwill of Global North actors who have to consider how to engage with Global South actors. Localization also suggests transforming something that was imported (i.e. humanitarian intervention) into something that is more locally managed. While there may be much truth in this interpretation, given the dominance of international agencies in humanitarian action, the act of transposing international for local humanitarian action suggests that localization is nothing more than a technocratic exercise in identifying local implementing partners for specific humanitarian activities, rather than a more holistic approach to supporting genuinely locally owned civil society efforts.

Perhaps most tellingly of all is that in the discussions I’ve seen or read about localization, very few of them attempt to address the structural racism that is hard baked into the system.

Perhaps most tellingly of all is that in the discussions I’ve seen or read about localization, very few of them attempt to address the structural racism that is hard baked into the system. It’s as if the current rule setters of the system, the policy-makers, donors, international organizations and INGOs, don’t want to admit that the present system perpetuates racial inequity; and that they are complicit in perpetuating it through structures and processes that reinforce Global North actors as civilized and the civilizers and Global South actors as uncivilized, lacking in skills, capacity and agency. This, dear friends, is what the current system is built on, and it’s a bitter pill to swallow for many Global North organizations.

This, then, is the essential difference between localization and decolonizing. Decolonizing, a term coined by Global South thinkers and activists and which builds on decades of activism and thinking from the decoloniality movement, attempts to tackle the neo-colonial and racist thinking and practice that still dominates our sector. If this is overturned, the system will change for good, or so advocates of decolonizing aid believe. Meanwhile, I suspect that many advocates of localization would prefer to ignore the issue of racism, hoping that it will go away or that localization can somehow reform the system without tackling the neo-colonial mindsets on which the current system is built. But, as most systems thinkers will tell you, changing the system without changing the mindsets that underpin the system is pretty hard to achieve. As I recently outlined in a paper for a European government keen to understand the difference between localization and decolonizing (this paper will be available on the GFCF website soon), localization looks at the problems in the system with one eye closed, looking at a small handful of the symptoms of the problem (such as lack of funding and unequal partnerships) without asking the difficult questions about the deeply problematic assumptions and attitudes that gave rise to the problems in the first place. In fact, localization is a perfect example of Einstein’s maxim that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Many advocates of localization would prefer to ignore the issue of racism, hoping that it will go away or that localization can somehow reform the system without tackling the neo-colonial mindsets on which the current system is built.

So what about #ShiftThePower, this call to action started by the GFCF? I suspect that #ShiftThePower sits somewhere in-between the two camps, more radical than localization, because it specifically mentions power, where it sits in the system and who holds it. There’s also a great moral weight that comes from something that increasingly resembles a movement, beyond the control of any group of people, and which has hundreds of Global South actors as its champions. But, and there is a “but”, it could be more. In not talking about race, is #ShiftThePower avoiding the elephant in the room? Can power and race really be decoupled in a sector based on international engagement that often mimics neo-colonial practices and attitudes? So, by all means let’s congratulate #ShiftThePower for nurturing a movement which is breaking one taboo – power – but let’s work on breaking the other, racism, together.    

And lastly, let’s return to the question of fads and fashions. Are we seeing something that is a flash in the pan, merely a moment of reflection and energy that will pass? I’m pretty sure that some big INGOs and governments hope so. Whether ideologically driven or driven by a desire to maintain power and control, there are those who do not wish this change agenda to succeed. We can’t let that happen. But it will take all of us to commit to it, not to be bystanders in the most important change process of a generation, for us to overcome the resistance, inertia and gravitational pull of the sector. For the sake of all the communities and people across the world whose lives will be transformed by a transformed sector, I hope you will join the change process, in whatever way you can.