Fresh look

Are local actors the future of humanitarian action?

By Rowena Teall (a version of this post was originally published on WhyDev)

This year’s World Disasters Report states that local actors are ‘the key to humanitarian effectiveness’.

Localisation of aid is also a key feature in all four themes of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. This renewed focus on the local indicates a growing realisation in the aid community of the vital role local actors play in assisting with and improving humanitarian action. Despite their contribution having always been essential, these organisations are often ignored by and excluded from the international humanitarian sphere and respective governments. The direct consequence of this reluctance to trust in and utilise all actors is that crisis-affected people are not receiving the humanitarian action they need.

Local actors’ greatest utility stems from the fact they are always there.

Because they are often a part of the population, they are usually the first to respond to crises and are uniquely placed to provide immediate, needs-based assistance. Unlike some international actors, local organisations commonly speak the language and have an in-depth understanding of the histories and cultures of the region, again increasing the likelihood of providing aid based on the actual priorities of recipients.

They can continue to act in spaces that international actors cannot and often remain after larger INGOs have moved on. Whilst international agencies may be unable to access areas due to security or political issues, local actors may be able to act more quickly and sustainably. For example, local NGOs reached Kachin IDPs in Burma in 2011, whilst the UN was still attempting to negotiate access with the government. Local actors, therefore, may in certain cases address the ever-present humanitarian challenges of ‘shrinking access, fragmentation of operations and the gaps between response, recovery and development’.

The gap between rhetoric and action: why have local actors been neglected?

Reports, evaluations and discussion groups have repeatedly called for the humanitarian community to support and not undermine the essential work of local actors. However, in spite of the growing rhetoric about localising aid, this has not been adequately reflected in action and local actors are not being utilised effectively by the aid sector. There still exists an unwillingness from internationals to place trust in these organisations and hand over both responsibility and independence; often, local actors seem to be perceived as a risk, rather than for the significant added value they bring on the ground.

Several obstacles could be behind this gap between rhetoric and action, mostly originating from the international humanitarian ‘architecture’, which has seemed hesitant to genuinely build national and local capacity. This bureaucracy does not encourage international bodies to partner with local actors, especially during a crisis when it can be difficult to identify suitable partners, whilst local organisations may be less likely to apply for international funding or partnership, due to these same levels of bureaucracy.

In conflict situations in particular, international actors and their donors may worry about the neutrality and impartiality of local organisations.

These partners may also lack the capacity to comply with the standards for monitoring and evaluation, again making it harder for international actors to justify their partnership to donors.  

Linked to this is the issue of finance. In recent years, there has been huge growth in the financing of international aid, which has resulted in donors signing a smaller number of large-scale contracts with ‘trusted’ agencies, making it more difficult for small-scale, local organisations to secure funding. A much cited illustration of this was the allocation of US aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; of $6.43 billion, just 0.6% was given to non-governmental Haitian actors.

Utilising local actors: to the benefit of all

These challenges can be overcome and tackling them should be seen as an opportunity to create a more inclusive humanitarian system. The current system is based upon a model which is at odds with the changing reality of the field; new forms of humanitarian action are emerging, driven by an increasing variety of actors, who could lend their relative strengths to a coordinated approach. A more open and adaptive system is needed to meet the humanitarian challenges of the future; a better balance needs to be struck between the international and local to maximise the strengths of each actor. Encouraging mutual cooperation and respect would be for the benefit of all, but most importantly for the people the humanitarian community are working to help.

With regards to funding, more trust could be placed in local organisations to give them the flexibility they need to meet the needs of the affected population. International donors should be encouraged to move beyond direct emergency funding towards financing in-country income generation projects and supporting local partners to establish national or systematic fundraising methods.

Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART): a case study for localising aid

HART provides an excellent case study to highlight the advantages of delivering humanitarian aid through local actors. The crux of the World Disasters Report is that we should think of local actors ‘on their own terms’; HART has been doing this since it was founded.

The core of HART’s approach surrounds their partnerships with in-country organisations, established through personal relationships maintained through regular visits. In this way, mutual trust is founded from the outset, ensuring that HART support is well placed and allowing partners the flexibility needed to adapt to changing situations and needs. In each context, the solutions and models of action will vary, but facilitating partners to meet the needs they themselves have identified ensures that aid is most effectively delivered. Additionally, HART supports their partners to build the capacity to become self sustaining through external training.

In eight years of working this way, none of the programmes HART supports has become a ‘white elephant’.

HART’s former partner in South Sudan, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), illustrates the success of this approach in action. HART supported EPC in delivering their own agenda of primary healthcare and agricultural projects in their community and surrounding areas. Through the partnership, HART helped the organisation to build capacity and gain access to internal and international donors, enabling EPC to grow to the point where they no longer needed HART to support them.

Supporting local actors could help us overcome some of the challenges facing the sector and will increase both the short and long-term humanitarian impact. Moving forward, the international aid community should continue their renewed focus on localisation and look to realise the complementarity which could be achieved by a more inclusive humanitarian ‘architecture’. Translating the international rhetoric into local action will be for the benefit of all.


 

Rowena is currently a Research and Campaigns Intern at HART in London and has just completed her master’s degree in Defence, Development and Diplomacy at Durham University.

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