Skip to main content

The myth of the local

How international organizations localize norms rhetorically


Debates about the diffusion of international norms have increasingly focused on norm appropriation, highlighting the agency of local actors. The proliferation of international organizations in the Global South raises the question of whether and how they practice local norm appropriation. This article uses ethnographic methods to investigate the appropriation of development norms in an intergovernmental development organization located in Bangladesh. Established theories like localization and sociological institutionalism would expect local actors to allude to a global norm but not to adhere to it. On the contrary, this study finds that, while development organizations may allude to local development norms and dismiss UN-led initiatives as “Western,” their practices remain in line with global concepts such as the Millennium Development Goals and the Human Development Index. These actors perform to localize, but the rhetoric is not matched by their everyday practices. The local therefore functions as a myth.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    This research was enabled by a travel grant from the Hans-Böckler-Foundation. I am indebted to my generous hosts at CIRDAP in Dhaka, especially Cecep Effendi. For comments on previous drafts, I would like to thank Mathias Albert, William Callison, Klaus Dingwerth, Johannes Haaf, Sophia Hornbacher-Schönleber, Shruti Lahiri, Peter Mayer, Densua Mumford, Martin Nonhoff, Klaus Schlichte, Elias Steinhilper, and Lisbeth Zimmermann as well as the participants of the IB-Nachwuchstagung 2014 in Tutzing, the MAIR colloquium in Bremen. Furthermore, I thank two anonymous reviewers and Eric Werker, the editor of this special issue.

  2. 2.

    The United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC).

  3. 3.

    Note that Hahn (2008) describes appropriation as a competitive theory to localization. I define appropriation as an umbrella term with localization as a specific way of appropriating a norm.

  4. 4.

    For summaries, see Finnemore (1996) and Meyer (2010).

  5. 5.

    See Steinhilper (2015) for a study on norm diffusion from the Global South to the Global North, and Zimmermann (2016) for a detailed analysis of the interaction between domestic and international actors.

  6. 6.

    From the website: (last accessed: 2014/07/03).

  7. 7.

    Title of a CIRDAP workshop held on 25–28 May 2013 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

  8. 8.

    The position of the Director General is temporally limited and rotates between the member countries.

  9. 9.

    The actors hardly problematize the fact that the situations in Iran and the Philippines might, for instance, also strongly differ.

  10. 10.

    Though this refers to the “basic needs” approach from 1990, for the sake of comparing it with the original figure. According to current indicators used by the UN system, the poverty rate will hit 20.7 %. See (last access: 2014/02/13).

  11. 11.

    Karim, Tarmini, A. (2013). Inaugural Speech at the 28th regular meeting of the CIRDAP Technical Committee (TC-28), May 20, 2013 in Jakarta.

  12. 12.

    As Sri Lanka did on the TC-28 meeting in 2013.

  13. 13.

    By retrieving all statements that identify “aims,” “goals,” “targets,” or “necessities.”

  14. 14.

    By listing everything that “has to be done,” “should be done,” is “necessary,” “needed,” “required,” a “task” or “lacking.”

  15. 15.

    I refer to policy papers, laws, international and regional declarations, and treaties that are being referred to as frameworks for norms or commitments.

  16. 16.

    Patton (2001) defines this method as the selection of information-rich cases that intensely manifest the phenomena of interest.

  17. 17.

    The others do not take an identifiable stance in these discussions.

  18. 18.

    According to minutes of meetings from the last three years.

  19. 19.

    I thank one of the reviewers for this suggestion.


  1. Acharya, A. (2004). How ideas spread: whose norms matter? Norm Localization and institutional change in Asian Regionalism. International Organization, 58(2), 239–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Acharya, A. (2007). Ideas, identity, and institution-building: from the ‘ASEAN way’ to the ‘Asia-Pacific way’? The Pacific Review, 10(3), 319–346.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Acharya, A. (2011). Whose ideas matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Adler, E., & Pouliot, V. (2011). International practices. International Theory, 3(1), 1–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bayly, S. (2007). Asian Voices in a post-colonial Age. Vietnam, India and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bendix, R. (2013). The power of perseverance: exploring negotiation dynamics at the World Intellectual Property Organization. In B. Müller (Ed.), The Gloss of Harmony: The Politics of Policy-Making in Multilateral Organisations (pp. 23–49). New York: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Biswas, T. (2009). Bangladesh. In CIRDAP country study series: assessing rural Development initiatives, exploring future opportunities. Dhaka: CIRDAP.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brymann, A. (2004). Social research methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Chadwick, W., Debiel, T., & Gadinger, F. (2013). Editorial: the (liberal) emperor‘s new clothes? relational sensibility and the future of peacebuilding, ibid (eds): Sensibility and the ‘Turn to the Local’: Prospects for the Future of Peacebuilding. Duisburg: Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Chandler, D. (2013). Peacebuilding and the politics of non-linearity: rethinking ‘hidden’ agency and ‘resistance’. Peacebuilding, 1(1), 17–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. CIRDAP (1979). Founding document. Bangladesh: FAO, CIRDAP Member Countries.

    Google Scholar 

  12. CIRDAP (2009). CIRDAP Country Study Series: Assessing rural Development Initiatives, Exploring future Opportunities. Dhaka: CIRDAP.

    Google Scholar 

  13. CIRDAP (2013). Rural Development Best Practices in CIRDAP Member Countries 2013. CIRDAP Best Practices Mimeography Series No. 2. Dhaka: CIRDAP.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Deitelhoff, N. (2006). Überzeugung in der Politik. Grundzüge einer Diskurstheorie internationalen Regierens. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Deitelhoff, N., & Zimmermann, L. (2014). From the heart of darkness. critical Reading and genuine listening in constructivist Norm Research. A reply to Stephan Engelkamp, Katharina Glaab, and Judith Renner. World Political Science Review, 10(1), 17–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Finnemore, M. (1993). International organizations as teachers of norms: the United Nations educational, scientific, and Cultural Organization and Science policy. International Organization, 47(4), 564–597.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Finnemore, M. (1996). Norms, culture, and World politics: insights from Sociology’s institutionalism. International Organization, 50(2), 325–347.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Finnemore, M., & Sikkink, K. (1998). International Norm Dynamics and political change. International Organization, 52(4), 887–917.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fresia, M. (2013). The making of global consensus: constructing norms on refugee protection at UNHCR. In B. Müller (Ed.), The Gloss of Harmony: The Politics of Policy-Making in Multilateral Organisations (pp. 50–74). New York: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Goodman, R., & Jinks, D. (2008). Incomplete internalization and compliance with human rights law. European Journal of International Law., 19(4), 725–748.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Großklaus, M. (2015). Appropriation and the Dualism of Human Rights: Understanding the contradictory Impact of Gender Norms in Nigeria. In: Third World Quarterly, 36 (5), 1253–1267.

  22. Hahn, H. (2008). Diffusionism, appropriation and globalization. some remarks on current debates in anthropology. In: Anthropos, 103(1), 191–202.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Ivanyna, M., Shah, A., (2012). How close is your Government to its people? worldwide indicators on localization and decentralization. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 6138. (Accessed 07 April 2015).

  24. Jha, S., McCawley, P. (2011): South–South Economic Linkages. An Overview. ADB Economics Working Paper Series, No. 270 (August 2011). Manila: Asian Development Bank

  25. Koddenbrock, K. (2014). Strategies of Critique in International Relations. From Foucault and Latour towards Marx. European Journal of International Relations, 21(2), 243–266.

  26. Krebs, R., & Jackson, T. (2007). Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric. European Journal of International Relations, 13 (1), 35-66.

  27. Mac Ginty, R. (2015). Where is the local? critical localism and peacebuilding. Third World Quarterly, 36(5), 840–856.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Meyer, J. (2010). World Society, institutional theories, and the actor. The Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 1–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Meyer, J., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340–363.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Morisson, J. (2010). From global paradigms to grounded policies: local sociocognitive constructions of international Development policies and implications for Development Management. Public Administration and Development, 30(2), 159–174.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Müller, B. (2013). Introduction – Lifting the Veil of Harmony: Anthropologists approach International Organizations. In B. Müller (Ed.), The Gloss of Harmony: The Politics of Policy-Making in Multilateral Organisations (pp. 1–22). New York: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Patton, M. (2001). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Pfeffer, C. (2014). Rethinking resistance in Development studies. Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, 30(1), 4–19.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Rosecrance, R. (2014). The partial diffusion of power. International Studies Review, 16(2), 199–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Rother, S. (2012). Wendt meets east: ASEAN cultures of conflict and cooperation. Cooperation and Conflict, 47(1), 49–67.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Rüland, J. (2013). Constructing regionalism domestically: local actors and foreign policymaking in newly democratized Indonesia. Foreign Policy Analysis, 10(2), 181–201.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Schimmelfennig, F. (2003). The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  38. Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Steinhilper, E. (2015). From ‘the rest’ to ‘the west’: rights of indigenous peoples and the Western Bias in Norm Diffusion Research. International Studies Review, 17(4), 536–555.

    Google Scholar 

  40. UNDP (2015): About human Development. Accessed 25 March 2015

  41. Unger, C. (2014). Helping them become like Us: Development aid as an arena of European Identity Politics. In M. Middell (Ed.), Imagined Europeans. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Wolff, J., Zimmermann, L. (2015). Between Banyans and battle scenes: Liberal norms, contestation, and the limits of critique. Review of International Studies. Online first: DOI:10.1017/S0260210515000534.

  43. World Bank (2012). Well Begun, Not Yet Done: Vietnam’s Remarkable Progress on Poverty Reduction and the Emerging Challenges. Hanoi: The World Bank Group.

    Google Scholar 

  44. World Bank (2013). Localizing Development: Does Participation work? The World Bank Group: Washington D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Ziai, A. (2009). Development: projects, power, and a poststructuralist perspective. Alternatives, 32(2), 183–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Ziai, A. (2013). The discourse of “Development” and why the concept should be abandoned. Development in Practice, 23(1), 123–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Zimmermann, L. (2016). Global Norms with a Local Face? Rule of Law Promotion and Interactive Norm Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Felix Anderl.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Anderl, F. The myth of the local. Rev Int Organ 11, 197–218 (2016).

Download citation


  • International Organizations
  • Norm Localization
  • Development
  • Regional Organizations
  • Ethnographic Methods