What do we mean when we use the term ‘local’?

6 Oct

Introduction
Aid, post-war reconstruction and peace-support interventions all make prominent use of the term ‘local’. They emphasise the importance of local partnerships, local participation, local ownership and local wisdom. Truly, we can say that internationally-supported peacebuilding has undergone a ‘local turn’, with a buy-in from local people regarded as essential to sustainable and effective peace. Indeed, the extent of the recent turn to all things local is illustrated by the fact that the word local did not appear once in the UN’s 1992 seminal Agenda for Peace document. But two decades later, the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report and the UNDP’s 2011 Governance for Peace document use the word 382 and 197 times respectively.

So this word ‘local’ is sprinkled around like confetti at a wedding. But what do we mean by it? How do we use it? And in what forms do we try to export it in relation to peace and conflict programming?

Auto-ethnography
A fun way to investigate what we mean by ‘local’ is to engage in a little auto-ethnography. We don’t have to agonise or read ourselves into another literature. We just have to engage in a little reflection. The advantages of this approach are many: no research funding applications, no ethics committee, no trying to get a buy-out from teaching, no long-distance travel, no struggling to get a visa, no inoculations, and no squeezed into a middle seat on an airplane.

Instead, I travelled to my local town – about six miles from where I live. The word ‘local’ was displayed prominently in shop windows and signs. It was clear that a premium was attached to all things local, hand-crafted and sourced nearby. Local, in this commercial sense, was equated with authenticity, freshness and supporting the local economy. Indeed, a vernacular term for a local pub in these islands is ‘the local’. The invocation to ‘shop local’ had a political edge to it and was linked to the well-being of the community. The term ‘local’ was taken as a signifier of much broader – and normatively positive – issues, such as honesty, solidarity, community and sustainability.

The high street did indeed have many signs using the word ‘local’ but the streetscape was actually dominated by large national and international chains. In fact, there was often something defensive in the use of the word local by many shops: they are desperately trying to cling onto their business in the face of large chains. We might talk about ‘the local’, but our economic habits actually sustain the extra local.

So, I came away from my walk around the local town confused. We seem to have an ambivalent and inconsistent attitude to the local. We use the term instrumentally and attach specific meanings to it, but we don’t live our lives according to localism. It is an elastic category: aspirational, optional, plastic, comforting, both real and imaginary. It is not a rigid creed. Nor is it a geographical fact. Despite the persistence of the term ‘local’, our lives and economic patterns show that we are embedded – and have been embedded for a long period of time – in transnational and international processes.

This leads to a fundamental question: if we are confused and ambivalent about the meaning of the term ‘local’ in our own lives, can we be expected to use the term ‘local’ with any accuracy when we talk about it in relation to peacebuilding and conflict intervention?

The not so local local
The key point is that what we think might be local probably isn’t terribly local at all. Peacebuilding imposes a series of imaginaries on war-torn societies. It projects its own interpretation of the war-affected society. One of these imaginaries, or imposed narratives, may relate to a sense of localism. There is a tendency for international actors – peacebuilders among them – to render people and spaces into subjects. This process of subjectification is also usually a process of simplification. People, that most complex of species, are rendered into neat categories: victims, perpetrators, refugees, IDPs etc. Spaces are also rendered into neat categories: safe, war-torn, green zone, rebel held etc. Spanning both people and places is the term ‘local’. Often we impose it on communities and places. The danger is that it renders communities immobile, backward, remote and lacking in agency. We may also romanticise all things local: regarding it as unpolluted by the pace and cynicism of the international, transnational and urban.

If the local is not local, then why do we persist in using the term?
There are a number of factors that help explain this persistence of the local imaginary. First is the already mentioned ‘local turn’ in relation to peacebuilding. There is a strong belief that a recourse to ‘the local’ can be the anti-dote to the perceived failings of top-down, elite-led, remote, and insensitive peace and development interventions.

A second reason for the persistence of ‘the local’ imaginary is that the process of subjectification legitimises us. By designating people and space as local, we justify our own position as interveners. The local and non-local distinction connects with a series of highly subjective assumptions and worldviews. The danger is that we slip into lazy caricatures: the local is insular, parochial, backward, and unpolluted, while the outsider is capable, sophisticated, experienced etc. So this local and non-local distinction helps us make sense of the world. It is both a comforting and useful notion. Comforting in that it does not threaten our imaginary. Useful in that it reinforces our own superiority and justifies an interventionist stance. More than this, it helps justify the existence of an entire interventionist system, and the political and moral economy that attends it. So the local, rather than being remote, peripheral and somehow irrelevant becomes central to the justification of systems of power. We can talk of the centrality of the term local in the worldview of interventionists. It provides them with a raison d’etre and a narrative that justifies their actions.

A third reason for the persistence of this word ‘local’ in our peacebuilding vocabulary relates to linguistic limitations. While we are aware of the complexity of the issues associated with the use of words like ‘local’, ‘international’, ‘external’ and ‘internal’, we still have to communicate with each other in a comprehensible way. We use words as a shorthand – as simplifying signifiers. The word ‘local’ is one of these simplifying signifiers. We tend to know what people mean when they use the terms ‘local’ and ‘international’. But this mutual understanding is often superficial. As we have seen, scratch the surface of terms like ‘local’ and they turn out to be very complex.

A fourth reason for the persistence of the term ‘local’ can be attributed to technocracy. One of the consequences of technocracy is that once systems are put in place, they often stay in place without very much consideration of their original rationale or usefulness. So the term ‘local’ becomes something of a fixture in the peacebuilding landscape – it is caught in the bureaucratic inertia.

Conclusion

Perhaps the main message for our research is that the level of analysis – local, international, national, regional etc. – has limited worth if we do not interrogate our own epistemologies. Rather than merely examining the local, we need to think seriously about what we mean by the local and why we attach particular meanings to it. Claudia Simons points to the process of ‘localisation’ or the construction of the local. We need to interrogate why we construct it in the ways that we do.

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4 Responses to “What do we mean when we use the term ‘local’?”

  1. David Roberts 06/10/2013 at 4:21 pm #

    This is so good Roger – but what, then, are we to mean when we refer to ‘the local’? Does this mean it is, like all things postmodernist, beyond useful definition that does not subjectify it to the point of both uselessness and dangerousness?

    • rogermacginty 07/10/2013 at 8:44 am #

      Hi David, Yes … the post-modernist curse in which everything means nothing. I guess that it is one of those terms that we know when we see it. What interests me is how we have a very mixed up view of the local in our own lives but we expect to export a meaning of it in an unproblematic way.

  2. Hannah Fitter 09/10/2013 at 10:02 am #

    Great post Roger. It reminds me of a recurring discussion I’ve been having recently regarding the latent superiority complexes I find throughout development NGOs and agencies, the factors that drive those complexes and possible solutions. Perception of local definitely fits in there somewhere…

    • rogermacginty 20/11/2013 at 2:36 pm #

      Thanks for that Hannah. I like that phrase ‘latent superiority complexes’ in NGOs and know exactly what you men.

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