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Why local leadership is critical to development projects

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: April 25, 2022

Local leadership is crucial for the long-term success of sustainable development projects. In order to support meaningful action which has a lasting, positive impact, we’re committed to making sure our internships and gap year volunteer programs partner with locally-led organisations.

If you’re considering a gap year volunteer program, here is an overview of why local leadership is vital to ethical and sustainable development projects



What does locally-led development look like?

Being led by local communities is essential for any development project, whether community or conservation-focused. 

Locally-led development means local communities, individuals and organisations are involved in decision making and can develop solutions to the challenges they are facing. According to Bond, communities and local groups who have a say in how funds are spent and how priorities are set are more likely to feel greater ownership of the outcomes and find solutions to problems that arise.

International organisations focused on community-led development can support existing community leaders, and support and strengthen local structures that can create systematic long-lasting change. 

In March 2020 openDemocracy published an open letter to international NGOs looking to “localise” their operations. Represented by a large group of organisations from around the world, an extract from the letter reads, “If you are serious about ‘shifting power’ then reduce your footprint and brand and use your fundraising machinery to help grassroots organisations create the structures to fundraise for themselves and sustain their work. There are often local organisations, like ourselves, who work effectively on the ground, with better connections to the local community. And many of us also have the skills and capacity to represent our issues on the world stage.”

Why is locally-led development important? 

The leadership and resources to make solutions a reality need to be provided locally, with local ownership crucial for achieving sustainable, long-term results in projects. 

If local leaders aren’t involved in the decision-making process on a project, relationships with communities could be damaged and jeopardise support in the long run. Plus, local leaders will have a better understanding of local ecosystems, cultural norms and a deeper understanding of the needs of both the people and environment where they operate. Development can’t take place ethically and sustainably without a deep cultural understanding of the context in which a project is operating. 

In addition, no project is designed to run forever, which means that once external support is withdrawn, the members of the local community and local organisations need to be passionately invested in the development project to keep it running and making a positive impact. 



Volunteering on a locally-led project: What does this mean for you? 

As a volunteer on a GVI program, you’ll make an important contribution to the project of your choosing, and you will have the opportunity to work under the guidance of local community leaders. 

You’ll work closely with members of the local community and experience their culture and perspectives, as well as the knowledge that your project is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), which are used as a framework for community development solutions.

Communities in action

Gap year volunteer programs are an incredible opportunity to meet different people and experience different cultures. Working alongside members of the local community and having the opportunity to share their perspectives and daily lives is a powerful experience. GVI strives to have a community-led approach in all of our projects, below are some of the locations where you can see this in action. 



South Africa

In South Africa, community-led projects work toward a more equitable future. Volunteer programs in South Africa include early childhood development projects and studies of the complex issues leading to gender inequality in South Africa’s townships.

You’ll be working alongside vulnerable communities, offering support where they have identified that they need it. Working side-by-side with members of the local community, you’ll experience the diversity of local cultures and might even pick up a few words from one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. 


In Nepal, you will get the opportunity to work closely with members of the local community towards more sustainable development and develop empowerment plans aimed at providing greater opportunities for the Nepali people.

GVI’s volunteer projects in Nepal are aligned with the objectives of community members and local NGOs, and the UN SDGs. There are a variety of projects to choose from in Nepal including assisting with the rebuilding of education facilities following the 2015 earthquake, an internship focusing on international development and women’s empowerment




In the vibrant coastal nation of Ghana, you can contribute to improving public health, community development, and gender equality

Working with the local community, you’ll get to experience Ghanian hospitality and generosity, and learn about the cultural heritage of this country. 


Community development and self-empowerment projects in Cambodia focus on improving education opportunities for women and girls, and raising awareness of public health issues. While supporting local organisations in their sustainable development initiatives, you’ll get to experience the culture and history of Siem Reap.  




As a volunteer in Peru, you could assist with work to address challenges identified by local NGOs, and contribute to government-run initiatives. Community development initiatives in and around the town of Oxapampa include childhood education and community development  

To volunteer in one of GVI’s international locations and discover gap year volunteer programs that really make a difference, visit our website today.

We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19. 

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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