Lesson 03: Definitions


Careful thought should be given to definitions of ‘local’ when recruiting participants and designing content for capacity building activities. This is particularly the case when working with exiled diaspora groups who will have mixed feelings about ideas of ‘local ownership’. For example, they may feel a strong connection to the place their family members were born, whilst at the same time recognising that they benefit from privileges that those living within that country may not have (for example, freedom of speech).

Despite the increasing attention, as a concept, ‘the local’ and other related concepts such as ‘local capacity building’ and ‘local ownership’ are notoriously unclear and, as a result of this, perspectives on its place and importance within peacebuilding differ greatly among scholars and practitioners. It is particularly difficult to clearly define who ‘the local’ is in any context, as the term ‘usually comprises a wide range from the population at large to traditional structures, from central state government to civil society organisations, from specialized professional groups to local spoiler groups’.

Debates arose in workshops when it came to defining who could be a ‘genuine’ representative of the local population—those who attended workshops were often members of the elite, who in turn may have access to certain parts of what could be termed the ‘local local’ population but not others. For the purpose of this lesson, ‘local locals’, who are not English-speaking and/or internationally educated, can be distinguished from ‘international locals’, who are usually English-speaking and have hybrid senses of identity, which build upon their admixture of experiences and memories in the country in question and elsewhere (often completing their higher education in Western Europe or North America, and therefore drawing some of their formative experiences and thought structures from these).

Those participating in trainings run by our project in some cases fitted the description of ‘international local’, and therefore were drawn from the same groups that received a plethora of other trainings delivered by international organisations under the rubric of ‘capacity building’. As such, these individuals were more representative of themselves—an elite community—than they were of any imagined ‘local’ identity. By extension, ideas of who exactly is the ‘owner’ of ‘local ownership’ and what it is to be ‘owned’ are conflicted. Building the capacity of workshop attendees and their organisations did not necessarily mean that their activities would be in support of ‘local ownership’. For the reasons given above, there is no evidence that, for example, building the capacity of international locals will signify an automatic cascading-down of that capacity to local locals. Valery Perry and Soeren Keil break down local ownership into two separate parts and argue for structural ownership over functional ownership, defining the former as ‘a more deep-rooted form of engagement with local elites’ and the latter as where local actors are ‘involved in the implementation of projects and the allocation of aid… [but] remain nevertheless limited in the planning and implementation of a more medium and long-term strategy for state-building’. This discussion needs to be taken into account where capacity builders are defining what local ownership is, and how and why they intend to achieve it.

Critics argue that local ownership allows donors to shirk culpability for the results of statebuilding, in that it ‘allows international donors to mask their own responsibility for policy outcomes, evade accountability and camouflage invasive intervention as empowerment and capacity building’. Workshop attendees highlighted that there was a sense that capacity builders did not care about the contexts in which they worked; indeed, they were surprised that the PeaceCapacity trainers had any interest in their contexts, and even more so that the trainers intended to remain engaged with follow-ups. Therefore, it is important for capacity builders to ensure that workshops, whether taking place in a peacebuilding environment or in a remote location, involve a combination of individuals directly involved in the context (and living within it), and members of the diaspora. These workshops should include specific sessions designed to encourage productive communication of viewpoints on shared issues between local actors and members of the diaspora (and those of any hybrid identities in between).


Capacity builders must be reflective of who the local is, and cognisant of the fact that there might be different ‘local’ audiences with different needs and capacities. Capacity builders must be more reflective about how in particular the ‘local local’ can be meaningfully involved.