Blog and News

What Is Localization, Anyway? Four Ways To Put Local People Front and Center in International Development

May 24, 2022

This post is written by Bixal Director of Global Health Stephanie Vasquez.

Lately the term “localization” is everywhere in the international development field.

We hear it from our partners at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and read about it in their policy guidance to support localization through their investments and commitments to create a more equitable donor response. I’m sure we’ll hear it a lot at the upcoming Society for International Development, United States’ (SID-US’s) Annual Conference on May 26th. (I’ll be there with Bixal, so come see me!)

The goal of localization is to ensure development and humanitarian programs are, in fact, meeting the needs and desires of the people they serve. The core of localization is people. It’s the human side of making policies work — and work in a way that matters most to the people who are being served, whether by their government or by donors investing to meet the challenges of the day.

Localization means supporting local talent and local leadership. It means handling local business with USAID and donors through meaningful relationships.

Right now, we are seeing a spike in interest in human-focused approaches and human-centered design tools that improve people’s experiences with USAID and other government services, that is the customer experience. These approaches and tools offer a structured way to create meaning and trust in building relationships. These processes can create muscle memory that deepens understanding of the societal influences, history, cultural norms, traditions, sociopolitical shifts and economic changes that impact people and relationships.

Bixal has a long history of successfully using the human-centered design approaches that USAID is looking to implement. We use human-centered design practices to cocreate solutions with the people who ultimately will benefit from the services and products we produce with our government partners. By listening to and involving users in the planning process, we create products and services that resonate. We draw from their experience to inform the solution.

If your federal government agency, donor organization, non-governmental organization or international development program wants to start taking an approach more aligned with localization, here are four practical tips that anyone can implement.

1. Start with empathy.

Relationships matter and creating a good relationship often involves shared history, honesty, equity and inclusion as part of the lived experience. Empathy — not sympathy — is important to develop meaningful relationships.

Establishing a shared understanding can lead to open conversations on challenging subjects and issues that may not surface immediately. Investing in building a shared understanding, trust and genuine, meaningful relationships will support open dialogue when tackling challenging subjects and help you avoid missing key information.

2. Cultivate equity in the conversation.

Recognize the value and expertise your partners bring to the discussion. Recognize and respect local knowledge. Use structured user research processes like journey mapping that tap into knowledge from various sources.

Working with local talent is essential for understanding development challenges from a lived perspective. Combining this understanding with existing bodies of evidence results in project design and implementation that can bring the best of both lived experiences and best practices together.

I recently organized a webinar that touched on these topics, as SID-US Health & Nutrition Workgroup cochair, to hear from local actors in the global health community about how to engage with local leaders in a meaningful way: “What Does Local Capacity Development Mean from the Perspective of Local Actors in Global Health.”

3. Listen.

For programs to resonate within the environment and culture in which they are implemented, they must be inclusive of the people they serve. Two-way dialogue and listening are essential to keep the focus on the end users, and you should be able to view the project through the eyes and ears of the people who live in the context you are serving. You can’t claim empathy or equity if you are not genuinely listening to — and acting upon — the feedback from your local partners and the people the project intends to benefit.

4. Iterate as you work.

At Bixal, we take an Agile approach to everything. Our process includes a continuous loop of building, growing and iterating while gathering, monitoring and evaluating feedback.

We use tools and approaches like rapid prototyping, focus groups and journey mapping. We facilitate conversations to unlock ideas that turn into promising solutions. Through constant iteration, we incorporate new learnings and continuously evaluate our progress and effectiveness with academic rigor so we can apply those learnings early and often.


At Bixal, we apply these practical, crucial steps to our work every day. We also look for opportunities to connect our international work with the work we do with our U.S. federal partners, and vice versa, as both are looking for meaningful ways to connect with their constituents.

For example, in our work to support the Social Security Administration (SSA) to improve online transactions, we conducted research activities such as walk-throughs, contextual inquiries and discussions of varying structure to provide insight into the customer experience around each transaction. Usability analyses included “how might we” exercises and voting activities, while stakeholder interviews and review of existing strategic, operational and technical materials aided further discovery. 

The team found that the audience for these transactions was incredibly diverse and often face challenges that only SSA could help resolve. The use of detailed customer journey maps that traced the experience of a representative user through each transaction highlighted users’ pain points and challenges while capturing their corresponding reactions and emotions. These approaches work well in any government setting.

We also use regular feedback loops to share learnings and findings. For example, in our work for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Bixal is tasked with evaluating the implementation of a client-centered HIV care and treatment model that adapts HIV services to better meet the needs of people living with HIV, while reducing the burden on the health system. We are using a developmental evaluation approach, the idea of which is to give real-time — or close to real-time — feedback to program staff, creating a continuous development loop. We use focus groups, key informant interviews and quantitative data collection to capture the process of how the model is being tailored to the local context, identify early success factors and disseminate learnings to key audience members. We completed our first learning event in February 2022 to share lessons learned and will continue to conduct cyclical learning activities and events.

These are just a couple of examples of Bixal teams applying empathy, listening, equity and space for iteration in our work. Learning these concepts is a continuous journey — I find myself constantly learning from my peers and the people who have the lived experience in the countries where we work, and I’m still learning how to create more equitable structures that can advance meaningful localization.

A people-first mindset helps us not only remember, but also follow through on what matters most to the people who ultimately will use any service or program. International development is about changing people’s lives where they live. To succeed, the people — and their local needs — must always be at the heart of what we do.


What would you add to this list? Let me know or come find me at SID-US’s Annual Conference on May 26th. I’ll be there with many of my Bixal colleagues — stop by our booth and say hello.