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Regional themes > Civil society Last update: 2020-11-27  

 International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

The central role of local organisations in meeting the MDGs

Edited by Tom Bigg & David Satterthwaite

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

SARPN acknowledges the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) as the source of this document -
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Measures to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have to be intensely local or have strong local components – because, to succeed, they have to change outcomes in each particular locality, especially for those with the least income and assets. Most of the MDGs are about improved outcomes for individuals and households – food security, adequate incomes, access to schools and health care, secure homes with adequate provision for water and sanitation, protection from and treatment for life-threatening diseases. This requires tens of thousands of more effective local organizations to provide the relevant services – and to increase local capacity to cope with social and environmental change. These organizations are unlikely to serve poor groups1 unless these groups have more influence on service providers, and more voice in local governments. So meeting the MDGs also requires actively supporting civil and political rights – for pastoralists, forest dwellers, scattered rural populations or those living in farming and fishing villages, small towns and large cities. Where local governments are ineffective or simply ignore the needs of poorer groups, organizations formed by the poor – the landless, “slum” dwellers, smallholders, pastoralists – often have particular importance, providing their members with services and more influence.

Perhaps the two greatest failings of development assistance to date have been that it has provided too little support to the local organizations that benefit poor groups (including these groups’ own organizations) and has not checked the local and extra-local organizations that ignore or impoverish poor groups. Indeed, most of the local organizations that do benefit and represent poorer groups are invisible to development assistance. In most places, these organizations have much greater importance for meeting local needs than activities funded by development assistance. Perhaps this failure to support pro-poor local organizations is also a key reason why decades of development and environmentalism have failed to halt the destruction or damage of the natural systems on which virtually all food, fresh water supplies and a stable climate depend. Development assistance has failed to support the local organizations that have the knowledge and capacity to halt and reverse this damage, and has failed to check those local and extra-local interests that cause such destruction. Local organizations also usually have the central role in ensuring that the two goals of sustainable development are compatible – meeting needs without depleting natural resources and compromising ecosystem functioning.

The Millennium Development Goals are meant to provide new energy and resources to meet the needs of poor people – but are they addressing the ineffectiveness of development assistance? Do discussions about how to meet the MDGs recognize the central role of local organizations? To date, there is little discussion of how national governments and international agencies can support local organizations that work in favour of the poor and sustainable resource management. Meeting most of the MDG targets requires three major changes in local organizations: providing or improving services; providing a more just rule of law; and ensuring more voice and capacity to act for those with unmet needs and limited assets. These three changes are usually linked, and reinforce each other. Is it possible to get a better match between generating the needed pro-poor changes in each locality, and the highly centralized management of development assistance?

  1. The inadequacy in this terminology should be acknowledged, although it is difficult to find an alternative word that will not be misunderstood. “Poor groups” refers to those with incomes and asset bases that are insufficient for them to meet their needs and to cope with stresses (e.g. rising prices) or shocks (e.g. a disaster, failure of the rains, an income-earner seriously ill or injured). Many such groups are not poor in other ways. Many are made poor by external influences over which they have no control.

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