The most interesting trend today is the emphasis on creating a globally connected local.
The local approach to solving policy issues – economic, environmental or social – involves empowering communities in ways that allow them to collectively make decisions and come up with solutions to their local problems. It is well understood (though far less well implemented) that local communities (or local governments) are likely to find it hard to be entirely independent in their governance of these issues. External support from higher levels of governments is important for financial reasons and just general logistics.
"Local" is part of regional, national and global.... a "nested" system.
A “local” approach should not be conflated with an approach that advocates segregation of every community into a separate unit, disconnected from the social groups that surround it. Creating local governments or local councils for management of different locally relevant problems clearly does not imply that these local communities, cities, towns or villages acquire complete sovereignty. What it implies is making more efficient and taking a step further, the political system that many countries in the modern world already have in some form or the other – a federal system.
In a federal system, there is separation of powers across different levels of government, with the type of separation depending upon the specific policy area. Some issues are best tackled locally, some best tackled at the national level. A “local” approach to development simply seeks to make this separation of powers as efficient as possible, and to do this by involving not just formal local governments but also local citizens.
The great thing about a local approach is that you can create very contextually appropriate solutions. Now there are cases when it is appropriate to decide policy goals at the national level or even international level. Such cases might be related to things like economic equality, civil rights and so on. Even here however, working out the practical details of how to achieve these goals might best be done at the local level.The environmental and natural resource sector has started to see especially large benefits from ‘going local’ since these issues show a lot of small-scale variability. The economic sector is starting to see similar benefits; small-scale business, community-run cooperatives, farmers’ markets are starting to occupy an increasing share of the economy.
But the problem : Efficiency and Scaling up
And here we go. No single solution is perfect. There are disadvantages to everything. Despite its many strengths and increasing popularity, the “local” approach does have problems:
(1) Efficiency and re-inventing the wheel : Ideally, we want communities to come up with policy solutions that fit their specific need, and meet the constraints of their specific context. True. But we also do not want them to reinvent the wheel over and over again. There are some solutions that are likely to be applicable in most cases. There are some solutions that are time-tested. We would want local communities to adopt or at least try these solutions.
If one community has found something to work and another community in a similar circumstance is going through error after error in trying to figure out a solution, the net result is some loss of efficiency. It would be great if these communities could communicate with each other, and learn from each others’ failures and successes.
The time wasted in figuring out every single issue for oneself can be especially inefficient when rapid problem solving is required. This can include times of economic or environmental crises, when a delayed response carries high costs.
(2) Scaling up : This is related to the above point as follows. Essentially what we want is to figure out what works, and put it into practice as quickly as possible. Whether it is poverty alleviation, public health issues or climate change, time is money. We want to know how to best invest our money so that we get the biggest bang for our buck. For things like public health or climate change, we also want to achieve results at as large a scale as possible. For example, we can celebrate the preservation of one forest as much as we like, but it is not going to do much for climate change mitigation purposes. The scale at which infant mortality is occurring in many parts of Asia or Africa for example, demands a solution that can save as many children as possible.
The local approach may be too small-scale a method to tackle these large problems.
So... back from the grassroots to the headquarters?
One might say this is the perfect argument for implementing centralized solutions. That is, the national government (or the headquarters of a big development agency) come up with a solution and impose it everywhere uniformly to achieve a large-scale impact.
But the counter-argument to this would be that it would be difficult to come up with one magic solution. We have tried, and apparently we haven’t quite succeeded. What we need is not one group of people to design and implement solutions. That is a very outdated approach we have seen to fail multiple times.
What we actually need is to rapidly come up with a set of diverse solutions, test them in different contexts, and try to replicate the ones that work on a larger scale. The thing is, we also need to do this in a systematic way.
The local approach works well because it involves so many people working on the same problem at different locations....
Think of it as a set of laboratories.... laboratories that are collaborating, not competing.
So you have one problem that shows up in many different parts of the world. Again, poverty, public health and climate change come to mind. The underlying drivers of these problems are very different at each location and necessitate different ways of tackling them. What a local approach does is allow a lot of different people to tinker with the problem-solving process at their own location and figure out creative solutions that may or may not be appropriate somewhere else. Innovation is a very clear benefit of the local approach.
But without communication between all these different communities, we may miss out on a fantastic new solution that could be relevant to many other communities. Suppose a community finds a really good way to harvest rainwater or solar energy, surely other communities would benefit from this innovation? On the other hand, if we force all communities to act the same way and do not foster the potential for innovation, we wouldn't have such new and improved solutions any way.
The thing is, the local approach can be really good for innovation. But once in a while, an innovative solution is so relevant that it can create global change.
Why not invent at the local scale, coordinate communication networks across local communities, and reap the full benefits of these innovative solutions ?
That then is what we want today. A set of collaborating, communicating and well-connected little social and economic units that are free to create local solutions to local problems, but also have the power to take their ideas global and change as many lives as possible.
Hopefully this will be the next big phase after today's "going local" trend. The coordination will require a fair bit of work but if today's electronically connected world has seen at least one thing become easier, it is communication. Fingers crossed.