Local relevance: How to get it right

No-one in their right mind will disagree on how important it is to design solutions to be locally relevant. This stuff is so basic, it’s beyond common sense. Fundamental.

However, just because stuff is fundamental doesn’t make stuff easy.

In fact, getting local relevance right is damn hard. In our industry in particular, there are a million factors — ranging from lack of data to our own biases — that make defining locally relevant factors very difficult. But this difficulty is not limited to the Aid industry: billion-dollar business fail on new markets and even the likes of Facebook make rookie mistakes, many of which are related to culprits I am outlining below.

Since not having a local relevant narrative is simply not an option we settle for ersatz narratives. Apparently local relevant factors — tokens, just enough to tick that box — that are in fact horses**t. Here are some examples:

  1. Assuming that community leader = community relevance. “The community leader participated (in an event or maybe an interview), therefore our program is locally relevant AND has the local buy-in”. Newsflash — formal authority is one of the worst sources of insights you can come across. Formal leaderships — anywhere in the world — is a toxic mix of politics, resources, ambition. Often, some sort of corruption is part of the combination. Abusing one’s formal position for personal gain is not unheard of. It happens in Canada. And it probably happens in a village in Cameroon. And in neither case is it a good idea to collect profound insights about that community by talking to these figures of authority exclusively. I have personally spoken to Community Leaders that deny the existence of homosexuality or paint it as some sort of western invention. I have spoken to community leaders who promote nasty conspiracy theories about the origins of HIV or Cholera. I have met community leaders married to children. Sure, there are many insights we gather from interacting with them, but we owe it to the communities we work for to be more profound in our efforts. This argument can be extended, of course to whole governments.
  2. Mistaking some random characteristic for an identity. This happened to me a lot, over the years: I am involved in the development of some sort of community-based thing. There is a Communication Committee, of course, reviewing a material or other. And always, there is that person who looks at the picture on the material and says: “The person in the picture does not look local”. This is wrong on so many levels. But often, it simply is code for “this person looks too glamorous”. Or “too urban”, when we are here to design something for poor / rural people. This leads to whole programs that are built on the premise that it is a good idea to put pictures of poor people on products designed for poor people. Or pictures of sex workers on products/ brochures designed for sex workers. For years I have been saying this: Poverty is not an identity. No poor person ever wants to be reminded they are poor. “I can afford that thing but I won’t buy it because it looks too urban for me” — said no poor person, ever.
  3. The Local Language Falacy. If you have something to say that requires words, then you probably should use a language people understand. No argument there. However, discarding something as “not locally relevant” because it doesn’t use a local language is a mistake. And so is promoting something as “locally relevant” just because it uses the local grammar correctly. These days any 14 year old could get anything translated from any language in any other with a smartphone and an internet connection. Which will not make the 14 year old the holder of deep insights about any place in particular.

Now the things above by themselves are not a bad thing, by the way. They all can be critical factors in executing a program. But do not make the mistake of thinking that just because something is in a local language/ shot on location/ endorsed by the local leader, that something will succeed on account of “local relevance”. Also do not make the mistake of thinking that something not endorsed by the local authority/ not using local language/ shot elsewhere is automatically not locally relevant.

Think of any story or product or brand or message that you find very powerful. Is this thing only relevant to whatever local identity you have and impenetrable to anyone else, like some sort of elaborate pun? Probably not. Would someone who doesn’t speak your maternal language understand it/ be able to remember it? Chances are they would. Because the very fact that you find it powerful is probably a sign that it is built on genuine, profound insights: they are personal, yet not unique to you.

Good stories and any any movie worth its salt are great examples. That guy loves that girl and he is afraid he may lose her; he almost does but then she forgives him. Reluctant hero goes on a journey, gets lost, and ends up discovering stuff about themselves. The fact that these stories happen in this or the other place and the dialogue needs to be translated/ subtitled does not make them more or less relevant to someone in Chenai than to someone living in LA. In fact, their biggest power is their ability to transcend culture and appeal to some sort of deeper values — some sort of humanity, perhaps — that we all share regardless of the superficiality of mere culture.

The most powerful insights transcend culture or language. Maternal feelings. Aspiration. A teenager’s need for confidence. Friendship. Courage. Find them and build your story around them. Then, when executing, add whatever local factors you feel would further support/ amplify these insights. But don’t fool yourself by thinking that that message developed by the committee becomes locally relevant because the local language translation was endorsed by the village chief.

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