Mapping innovative governance for sustainable development

Article, 24 November 2015

The impacts of climate change and poverty are felt by individuals, households and communities in diverse local contexts; the solutions to these problems must similarly come from these most-affected people.

In most settings, control over resources and investment tends to be concentrated in the hands of elite groups in distant capitals. This means practical measures are needed to enable low-income households and communities to play a larger role in decision making and resource allocation. Such measures must start with the recognition and acceptance that local knowledge is both legitimate and valuable when it comes to shaping policy and practice.

Much of IIED's work involves collaborating with partner institutions and working at a local level. Our 40-plus years of experience in this field tells us that redistributing power and resources to the local level is the surest route to sustainable development and natural resource management.

The map above points to seven tried-and-tested approaches for achieving the shift, and highlights a selection of real examples of innovative governance from around the world.  

Almost all aspects of good environmental management depend on local knowledge and local action. Therefore both poverty reduction and good environmental management depend on local organisations – for what they do on the ground, for the resources they mobilise, for the knowledge they bring, for the accountability they should provide to low-income groups.
– Satterthwaite and Sauter 2008

Seven routes to empowering local institutions

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Local rights and organisations

Local organisations, often invisible at national or international scales, are critical for delivering local rights, and ensuring the means to recognise and enforce them. Compared with higher-level authorities, local institutions are more familiar with the local context, can more easily work in the local language, and have greater access to low income and vulnerable groups.  These institutions can perform multiple roles: acting as intermediaries between the state and communities, championing local rights, substituting state institutions with limited capacity, or enabling access to markets. 

Their effectiveness may depend on the external environment, such as state policies and the extent to which resource management has been devolved to the grassroots. But from mitigating climate change through REDD (PDF) to managing protected areas, and from opposing open pit mining to locally controlled forestry, local groups across the world have already proved their ability to hold local and national governments to account and to support local development and environmental management. 

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Decentralising finance

The diverse impacts of climate change mean that central governments are not best placed to prescribe adaptation and mitigation measures. Rather, it is local communities, who live with the impacts day to day, that know which strategies work.

By decentralising finance – transferring resources and decision making down to district and community levels – local knowledge, flexible responses and adaptive management can all come into play to develop resilience more effectively. This is particularly true in dryland regions, where the temporal nature of rainfall influencing livestock grazing and other livelihoods makes flexible governance and management structures essential.

Decentralising finance by supporting community savings groups has also been shown to be particularly effective in raising incomes, protecting assets and reducing political exclusion among groups of the urban poor. The Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is an international network of grassroots organisations, whose members use community savings to build social capital at neighbourhood level, provide skill exchanges, and negotiate common programmes with local and national governments. With federations present in Asia, Africa and Latin America, SDI counts among its members more than 16,000 savings groups.

Citizen-state partnerships

Local action can be translated into broader impact by creating effective partnerships between organised community groups and local authorities. Such partnerships enable joint management and decision-making and have, for example, been used effectively in Uganda for community upgrading (PDF).  

They often have the added advantage of building up local communities' capacity to voice their knowledge and approaches to resource management to government staff; as well as enabling both sides to have a greater mutual understanding of the challenges they face.

Citizen-state partnerships can also promote a longer-term perspective, because the individuals and organisations involved often have a shared and sustained interest and commitment to their home area, as well as a better understanding of local context.

Setting precedents

'Precedent setting' — demonstrating competence and capacity through particular initiatives — can be a very effective tool for local organisations to 'prove' themselves to government agencies, funders and other community organisations. For example, Local First is an approach developed by Peace Direct that tries to use existing capacity within countries to facilitate development, before bringing in outside expertise and resources.

The approach is based on the principle and understanding that local people must stand centre-stage in leading change in their own settings. And it recognises the fact that capacity can often be found outside central government. From Myanmar to Kenya, the initiative has identified several examples where local people are leading development through precedent setting.

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New technologies

New technologies can support grassroots governance in several ways. First, they can be used to hold national and local governments to account. For example, Follow the money is a website that aims to increase transparency in public spending by recording where public money is spent and what it delivers.

Second, they can build networks for economic gains. For example, the spread of mobile phones throughout Africa has helped connect people in rural areas with family and friends in urban centres, generating economic benefits, such as improved access to information and services.

Third, new technologies can also improve access to market information. Farmers across West Africa use mobile phones to decide when to travel to markets to get the best prices for their crops. Mobile phones are also used by health practitioners to track disease outbreaks and disseminate health education messages. 

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Compared with large businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often offer better prospects for supporting local activity, and investing in local assets and markets. In the forestry sector, SMEs that promote locally controlled forestry have advantages both for local people – in terms of jobs and incomes – and for investors, in terms of lower capital costs and better social and environmental sustainability.

Working with small forest enterprises can also offer better prospects for reducing poverty. This is particularly true when working in associations, which allow enterprises to reduce transactions costs, adapt to new market opportunities and have more say in the policy and business environment.

In niche markets, including REDD+ and various other Payments for Ecosystem Services schemes, intermediaries such as local NGOs and community groups can play an important role in linking smallholders to markets and ensuring equal sharing of benefits

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Legal tools

Over the past decade, legal empowerment – the use of legal tools to tackle power imbalances and support marginalised groups – has been used as a means to secure local land rights and ensure that investment contributes to inclusive sustainable development.

For example, IIED's Legal Tools for Citizen Empowerment initiative, launched in 2006, works with local partners in Africa and Asia to strengthen capacity at local and national levels to uphold local legal rights. Tried and tested approaches for legal empowerment include mobile literacy training and legal advice, policy advocacy and regional consultations between communities and decision makers.