Sustainable Development

Opinion: To build trust locally, international development must target communities

International development must go beyond localization towards 'communitization'.

International development must go beyond localization towards 'communitization'. Image: Pact

Caroline Anstey
President and Chief Executive Officer, Pact
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  • Declining trust in central authorities is changing how international development thinks about civic space.
  • Development bodies must go beyond localization towards 'communitization'.
  • Engaging people more directly can dramatically increase the effectiveness of delivering social and public services.

A lack of trust in central government, politicians, media and, most recently, law enforcement is now a widespread global phenomenon. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that: “Distrust is now society’s default emotion, with nearly 60% inclined to distrust.” The study, moreover, supplies an additional twist: While trust is collapsing within democracies, trust is surging within autocracies.

Alongside this, we’re seeing the closing of civic space and a questioning of the assumption that civil society can hold the government to account.

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What does this mean for the future of civic space? The same 2022 Edelman study found that trust, while once hierarchical, has now become local and dispersed: my employer, my colleagues, my family, my friends, and my community. In the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen examples of this. In many countries, information from central governments was often deemed part of a COVID conspiracy, while friends and neighbors were thought to know best. The hospital in the capital city was looked at as a breeding ground for disease, but local healthcare workers were seen as safe. We learned that to be truly effective, behaviour, diagnosis and treatment had to be done at the local level: distributed, customized, closer to home.

International development through localization or communitization?

If both trust and with it, delivery effectiveness of social and public services, are no longer vertical and hierarchical but are now horizontal and local, what does that mean for international development?

In the last 10 years, there has been an increasing focus on localization – on who implements, who leads, who manages the money, who makes the decisions, and who reports to who. All critical issues. At Pact, the international development organization I lead, we have pledged not to set up faux local affiliates precisely because we fervently believe in bolstering and supporting in-country, local capacity.

But is localization, however important, the entirety of the challenge? Remember that Edelman poll that said trust is now horizontal. Do we wrongly assume that local government can simply stand in for central? Do we wrongly assume that local civil society and local media can win the trust their national counterparts have failed to do? Do we need localization, or something more specific, like communitization?

What do I mean by communitization? Let’s look at some examples.

In Eswatini, HIV viral suppression rates in adolescents increased when community health workers – at the point of treatment delivery – got to know their patients and stopped castigating them. Word soon got out, and the number of adolescents seeking HIV-AIDS services rose.

In Colombia, women working in the panela and cut flower sectors are deliberately building their own circles of trust across their communities to prevent gender violence and promote women’s rights in the country’s municipalities. They are also looking to evaluate how soft skills and trust impact outcomes.

In such a case, we can’t measure success by how many bed nets we deliver or by how many local organizations we partner with. We must measure how many communities we engage, how many communities design the approach, and how many communities own the endeavors. This is communitization.

The point here is not that every decision must be put up for a voice vote in the village square. The point is that we must work within more horizontal circles of trust to engage people, not simply their political or civic representatives. And that means reconsidering how we think about political and development effectiveness – and indeed how we think about civil society.

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If that seems too herculean a task or even one that doesn’t really matter, think about how many more people might have agreed to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if the facilities, the campaigns and the persuasion had been anchored in circles of trust rooted at the community level.

Without that trust, we may congratulate ourselves on our progress towards localization, but we may just be building new local vertical hierarchies that lack the trust that societies now so desperately need.

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