What Social Media Can Tell Us About SDG Localization

Social media is both a saving grace and a thorn in the side of intelligent discussion. For all of its failings, people are certainly more, if not accurately, aware of the world around them. Politicians and government both bemoan the impact of social media (that fickle public needing more accountability and rapid change) and love it (the scandals and downfalls of opposition governments and politicians due to community mobilization on social media).

My personal beef with social media is that it is too addicting and I don’t spend enough time doing things like exercise or reading actual books.

But there is a lesson in social media which should be of great value to the development community – donors and multinational organizations in particular: people know what they want. Their ideas and values may be very different than yours but unless they can be proven to be harmful or illegal, we can’t discount them. And social media provides a space for people to talk about what they want unlike any forum in history. Discussion is dictated not by elected officials but by popularly agreed (and locally identified) need.

This trend makes a strong case for the need for SDG localization – there is no way global priorities match with local needs and desires – which is not to say global agenda is not critically important to us as global citizens. Social media also makes the case for the need to fundamentally shift how we design and fund development programmes.

Let me first be clear – contemporary development programmes are designed based on local consultations. They are, to a degree, locally responsive. However, by the time they are approved and funded, they are aggregate sectoral responses which also blend in ideas from donors and development practitioners which are rarely discussed with the community in a ‘second round’ of consultation. And then, of course, internationally-funded programmes are by necessity larger than just an individual community.

For years, international development programmes have been driven by an implicit (if not expressly stated) belief that donors and development practitioners know what’s best. Now, before you all start getting up in arms, let me say that, indeed, we are educated in and work in these fields and thus do have a strong case to make on what is important and how best to address any given sectoral issue – such as healthcare or social protection. But unless we are a member of a community, it is impossible for us to know what is best for it.

What does this mean in practice?

It means that donors who are genuinely interested in development need to stop giving money with provisos (notwithstanding those surrounding accountability, transparency and human rights, of course).

It means that local must really be local. National programmes – particularly for large and diverse countries – are not going to have the same impact if communities are being measured against national indicators. Programmes can aim for national impacts which are the result if trickled-up changes at the local level (throwing a wrench into traditional M&E, but that’s for later). But the money must be given to local governments or, even better, communities to fund their own local plans and initiatives.

It means development practitioners no longer manage but quietly advise and guide from the back seat. We cannot be the de facto decision makers any longer (unless, of course, it’s on issues of infractions of those three provisos I mentioned above). And if communities don’t want to take our advice, that’s their choice. They can live with their actions but, on the other hand, they would be solely accountable for those decisions.

What I’m arguing here isn’t radical – the global development community has been paying lip service to the concept of localization for years. What has been missing is a definitive discussion of how that fundamentally changes the approach to development programming that we must take. Some organizations are making head way – and the humanitarian sector has taken the biggest steps policy-wise. But if the SDGs are really going to serve the people they are meant to help the most, then it’s really time to move beyond policy and take the necessary, if punishing, steps to turn it into practice.

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