Integrating Local Knowledge in Humanitarian and Development Programming: Perspectives of Global Women Leaders

Publication Date: 07/08/2023

This report examines local knowledge integration in the context of global development and humanitarian aid work. It builds upon a recently published report by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) called "Integrating Local Knowledge in Development Programming". That report sought to “share knowledge of how development donors and implementing organizations leverage local knowledge to inform programming.”2 This study aims to extend the original methods to better understand grassroots actors’ own interpretations of local knowledge and its integration into programming in their communities. It examines the perspectives of 29 grassroots leaders from women-led organizations around the world, looking deeply at the ways in which they conceptualize local knowledge and local knowledge stakeholders, their approaches to designing their own projects based on local knowledge, and their experiences sharing knowledge with international actors and donors. This builds the broader evidence base on integrating local knowledge to incorporate the perspectives of grassroots actors into the same conversation as the original study.
Key takeaways from this research span two broad categories – how local leaders conceptualize local knowledge and what the effective use of local knowledge in practice looks like to them. Within these categories, interviewees explored the many challenges they face in identifying and sharing knowledge; their various approaches to designing projects based on local knowledge; some of the tensions they often find themselves balancing; unique ways of measuring the contribution of such knowledge to the success of an intervention; and experiences with and strategies for sharing their knowledge with non-local actors.
In terms of how women leaders tend to conceptualize local knowledge, the research reveals three distinct but interconnected definitions of the term: 1) knowing what a community is like; 2) knowing what a community needs and where the solutions lie; and 3) having a profound connection with the community. The first definition indicates knowing a community well enough to understand the dynamics within it. The second goes a bit further to say that local knowledge means knowing both the specific needs present in a community as well as the relevant solutions for addressing them. As one respondent told us, “Contextual expertise is having experience in a certain context and being able to solve problems based on it.” And the third conceptualization indicates having a deeply rooted connection with the community or the grassroots. Some described this as “having your heart” in the community. Key to this third definition appears to be both consistency and the ability to perceive change over time. Interviewees said that local knowledge depends on people having gone through different “contexts, histories, processes, and experiences” together, and having learned from them collectively. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, for international actors to acquire the same level of investment in communities that is quasi-synonymous with local knowledge unless they have lived, worked, and built relationships within them long enough to meet this consistency standard. Instead, this level of knowledge of a community and its context is fairly unique to local actors.