Five Ways to Unlock the Power of Local Action

Solutions for a sustainable future must rapidly empower local people at scale to drive climate and nature action worldwide

April 15, 2024
At the Gamri Watershed in Trashigang Dzongkhag, Bhutan, community-led projects worked to strengthen local actors’ resilience. Photo: © UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme/2019

At the Gamri Watershed in Trashigang Dzongkhag, Bhutan, community-led projects worked to strengthen local actors’ resilience.

Photo: © UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme/2019

The global crises of biodiversity loss, threatened ecosystem collapse, climate change and pollution have far-reaching impacts, and local communities worldwide experience the consequences first-hand. Whether this is flooding in a European village, a rainy season delayed by 2 months in East Africa or a heatwave closing inner-city schools in the Philippines, the impacts of planetary instability are experienced locally with local people more closely aware of the issues and impacts than any outsider.

The outsized insight and lived experience of local people and communities, -should be matched by a proportionally powerful influence over what takes place in their back yard, their local streets, fields, parks and wild spaces to transition to a sustainable future. National governments play an important role in advancing climate action and nature-positive change. But for interventions to succeed, both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed. 

Regions, cities and villages are key in realizing national targets, and local people and communities have to be empowered to contribute to these goals. Drawing on over 30 years of experience in promoting and harnessing localized action towards development goals, the following five approaches can unlock the power of local action. 

  1. Direct access to finance, while boosting technical and institutional capacities

Local communities, particularly in remote landscapes, are often neglected by their national governments and face significant governance, social and service deficits. Unlocking local action can help to remedy these structural disadvantages. Direct access to long-term, predictable and accessible finance offers the most effective means of empowering local action in tackling systemic challenges. 

Only a limited portion of nature and climate funding is typically allocated to local communities. Projects such as the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) show that when resources are directly channelled to local communities around the world, they can significantly enhance both the resilience and carbon sequestration of their landscapes, while improving livelihoods

For instance, local municipalities tasked with basic services, such as water, energy and waste management, often lack legal and technical resources for planning and financing ecosystem management, adaptation or mitigation activities. Increased and direct access to finance and credit should be complemented with technical assistance, information and knowledge, while prioritizing transparency, accountability and inclusivity. In Tanzania, for example, the finalization of legal documents secured land rights of indigenous peoples to use more than 7,000 hectares of areas for livestock and traditional use, promoting conservation, strengthening livelihoods and sustainably improving food security. 

  1. Multi-stakeholder approaches across landscapes

Local communities are intimately connected with their landscapes and can navigate the complex economic, political and socio-ecological dynamics. Project-centred approaches often fail by neglecting the broader context and perpetuating siloed operations. While whole-of-society approaches informed by systems thinking have utility for addressing the most urgent crises, an inclusive, landscape-level perspective that fosters partnerships among local government, civil society and the private sector is a necessary component. Beyond bringing diverse actors together, such an approach also prioritizes integrated programming across sectors through a participatory planning process. This goes a long way in creating integrated solutions and development benefits. 

Collaborative efforts to identify, design, implement and evaluate landscape-wide programmes not only make them more effective, but also help to ensure lasting impact. In southern Belize, for example, a partnership between local communities, civil society and the public sector led to concrete benefits for livelihoods, climate-smart farming and conservation. Communities who live adjacent to the Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve partnered with the Ya’axché Conservation Trust (a local NGO) and the Forest Department to secure access to an agroforestry concession. The agreement brought sustainable economic development, reduced threats to biodiversity and habitat loss, and protected water sources. This shows how landscape-wide programmes that span diverse actors offer potent strategies that can outlive short-term donor-funded projects. 

  1. Avenues for scaling collective local action

Globally, progress in curbing temperature rises and mitigating biodiversity loss has been encouraging but insufficient. Plentiful successes at the local level highlight a vastly untapped potential. 

Scaling up landscape-level interventions for locally led action has the potential to mobilize more finances; diversify funding modalities that include, but also go beyond, traditional grant-based mechanisms; and offer more potent, local-centric technical assistance based on flexible learning and programming. Locally led landscape approaches and partnerships, such as ‘1,000 Landscapes for 1 Billion people’, generate localized portfolio-level interventions which restore the functionality of local landscapes, improve the economic and social well-being of community members, and make communities dynamic players in landscape governance.

At the same time, scaling must also be integrated at the programmatic level, from concept to implementation. Concentrating finance- and decision-making power at the local level, in alignment with local priorities, can unlock pathways for viable ideas to thrive from ideation to incubation, acceleration and scale-up.

  1. More effective, fit-for-purpose financing modalities for boosting local entrepreneurship 

Local entrepreneurs, whether operating individually or collectively, are crucial for driving nature positive and climate-resilient initiatives and technologies at the local level. Despite abundant ideas and talent, accessing low-Interest financing remains a challenge due to complex, outdated or counterproductive legal frameworks, weak technical and managerial capacities, and market challenges. 

When credit or other financial instruments are available, the perceived risks associated with investing in new services or technologies often hinder local entrepreneurs. This also affects partnerships with larger businesses, particularly when markets fail to reward resilience-enhancing or climate-mitigating innovations. Aligning with the scaling approach described above, prioritizing low-risk, fit-for-purpose financing can empower local entrepreneurs to play a key role in resilience-supporting, nature-positive value chains.

  1. Addressing structural inequalities 

Vulnerable groups face systemic marginalization and are frequently excluded from financial access and broader decision-making processes. Yet locally led approaches, can have far-reaching effects that address these gaps while boosting nature-positive change. In rural Peru, for instance, projects that prioritized inclusivity helped to secure the rights of indigenous women, while promoting environmental action. 

The five approaches outlined above show how locally led, landscape-level approaches can constitute a multiplier effect that extends tremendous benefits to all members of society, as well as to the health of the ecosystems that sustain human life. Given the urgency of our planetary crisis, the impact of empowering local communities is too potent to ignore.