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.
“Imagine you are a thoughtful 22-year-old college graduate who wants to make a great difference in the world, he said, invoking one of his many thought experiments. Many such people try to get a job with Oxfam, the Gates Foundation, or any number of excellent charities. That’s fine. But if you don’t get that job at Oxfam, somebody just as smart and generous will get it instead. You’re probably not much better than that “next person up.” But imagine you go to work on Wall Street…
Yes, imagine you work in investment banking. You make $100,000 and give away half to charity. The “next person up” would not have done the same, so you have created $50,000 of good that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Even better, your donation could pay for one or two workers at Oxfam—or any effective cause you chose to donate to.”
Now, I like thought experiments as much as the next guy, maybe a little more.
But this particular thought experiment seems designed specifically to lead to a specific conclusion – that the best way to give is through effective altruism. That’s because it relies on a couple of dangerous simplifications.
1. Money is the best way of giving.
From a broader perspective, this is clearly wrong. It can work in some situations with direct cash gifts to the poor (not mentioned here, this article speaks only of charitable donations). But we also know that donating large amounts of money can lead to horrible waste and corruption. The trick is actually managing the donations intelligently. And, hey, don’t we need smart people to do that job?
On an individual level, this is at the least a massive over-simplification. Economists are fans of translating each and every variable into dollar worth: this intervention costs X, this person is worth Y, therefore the intervention is too expensive by Z. But this sort of approach doesn’t measure many things. (As the article goes on to point out, this is a problem because easily measurable causes are given greater credence by practitioners of effective altruism).
What about personal relationships that develop from your work at Oxfam or the Gates Foundation? What if doing development work makes you more committed to making a great difference in the world? The path of an individual and the effects that path have cannot be quantified in terms of money alone.
Which leads onto the second issue I have with this thought experiment.
2. All workers are of broadly similar worth.
By a) stipulating that this is about a 22 year old recent graduate and b) including the line “you’re probably not much better than that next person up” the ‘experiment’ becomes easy. Of course it’s better to just pay for more Oxfam staffers with your Wall Street profits – would you make any more (or less) difference compared to someone else? No! Of course not! That’s just your ego speaking.
But surely there is a difference?
I work in an office filled with University educated professionals doing development work. Most people are in a broadly similar age range. Some people are trained in certain fields – banking, engineering, HR – while others work in communications or project management or technical support. Do I think we’re all of equal usefulness? Of course not!
A 22 year old engineering graduate is worth more in the development job market than a 22 year old philosophy student. Otherwise why do certain jobs demand higher remuneration immediately after graduation? Even setting aside that different individuals are of different ability in a work environment regardless of educational achievements or that some people might simply be better suited to this type of work for any number of reasons, qualifications most definitely matter. Does ‘the next person’ speak three languages? Do they know stats? Can they code?
It’s crazy to put all 22 year graduates in the same basket.
The choice of a young graduate is a way of downplaying these issues of individual ability. Imagine this same thought experiment but with a 35 year old seeking a mid-career change. Is it easy to out-earn your usefulness when things like your experience and your network come into play? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s much less clear cut than at 22.
Unless, of course, you take the given advice and become an enormous success on Wall Street. But guess what, The Atlantic itself reported that the rich are less willing to give than the poor and they tend not to give to organizations that focus on the poor.
“Last year, not one of the top 50 individual charitable gifts went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.”
So there’s another complication.
What I don’t like about this ‘thought experiment’ is that it is designed to lead you to a specific conclusion – it’s a marketing ploy, in essence. But it’s presented as a purely logical piece of scientific reasoning. Even by presenting it as a thought experiment rather than as a simple argument positions the conclusion in a very particular way.
While I don’t necessarily disagree with the work done by organisations like 80,000 Hours, my instinct is to baulk at this sort of disingenuous presentation of opinion as fact. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. But then that’s a flaw that “the next blogger” might not have.
*I found this article through the subreddit ‘TrueTrueReddit‘. The whole article goes far beyond this one thought experiment and is well worth a read, it’s just the one part that got under my skin.
In a coursework essay that I wrote recently (I’m pursuing a Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute) I found myself making a relatively bold, non-cited and dare I say it, out-of-the-box statement.
Fellow students will understand that we don’t get to do that very often. Or if we do, it tends to emerge in a moment of madness and will likely get ditched in those pre-deadline revisions in which levels of adventure and intellectual gung-ho rapidly decline. Anyway, this particular essay was about tech hubs in South Africa and whether or not they are likely to translate into broader developmental outcomes (conclusion: it’s complex, natch).
Naturally, the early part of the essay approached problems in definition (again, fellow development students will surely relate here: if you haven’t spent a significant chunk of your undergraduate essays running through the complexities of defining ‘development’, you’re doing something wrong). Here I approached questions such as: ‘What is a tech hub?’ ‘Is an ‘incubator’ a type of hub, or is it the other way around?’ ‘Do tech labs or IT departments in universities count?’
I pushed the definitional boat out slightly by suggesting that, if tech hubs are partly about sharing good and often expensive internet access, then surely an internet cafe could also be considered a tech hub? And then, I got brave: “Even coffee shops with high-speed internet access could be technically defined as a ‘tech hub’ in the broadest sense”.
My thinking behind this statement derived itself twofold. Firstly, it was derived from a recognition of some of the basic characteristics of a tech hub, whether they refer to Google Campus in London, or iHub in Nairobi: fundamentally, they are physical spaces that foster creativity and innovation; they act as a ‘home’ for collaborative communities; and they share costs such as access to high-speed internet. By adding ‘access to caffeine’ to this list of characteristics, we can surely define coffee shops – in some respects – as tech hubs. And secondly, the statement was derived from my own obsession with coffee. All who know me (or follow me on Twitter) will know that coffee shops are my second home.
I will effectively be able to attribute both my undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications to London and Oxford’s coffee scenes respectively.
It was when I asked myself why I so enjoy working in coffee shops that I thought back to tech hubs. Because yes, coffee shops are very sociable spaces. But they’re also very productive, dynamic, energised, creative and inspiring spaces.
In London I worked in coffee shops alongside people writing TV scripts and planning productions; next to start-up entrepreneurs holding meetings; and among groups of students revising for exams and running on black Americanos (cheapest on the menu).
In Oxford I’m surrounded by people writing PhDs; students organising conferences; and teams of people working on the daily crossword (trust me, it happens).
This coffee shop atmosphere is not a new phenomenon. In the 1600s, coffeehouses were a social networking institution. Apparently the coffee was dire, but the atmosphere at least was not: people went to coffeehouses to discuss the weeks’ news and to spread gossip; one-penny lectures were given by members of the academic community; scientists ran experiments and shared the results of their research.
Great works such as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – both among the foundational works of modern science and economics respectively – were inspired by and mostly written in coffeehouses.
Some coffeehouses expanded as areas of specialist activity: the London Stock Exchange and the Lloyds insurance group, for example, both started out as coffeehouses that had attracted a speciality group of merchants, ship captains and traders; in Covent Garden, the Bedford Coffeehouse was a specialist meeting place for playwrights; and over on the other side of town, the Hoxton Square Coffeehouse specialised in inquisitions of insanity, whereby juries of coffee drinkers would vote on the fates of alleged ‘madmen’.
So, with all this talk of tech hubs and coffeehouses, what is my point? Well:
Firstly, let’s think more creatively about how we ‘define’ a tech hub. By which I mean, what about the innovation that takes place in internet cafes and coffee shops? We don’t need to necessarily define those spaces as tech hubs, but we ought to at least recognise that they are characterised by ‘tech-hub-like’ activity.
By broadening our understanding of what a tech hub is we find more ways in which to understand how and where innovation takes place. Take a university: yes, it is in the library that the studying, and the learning takes place; but it is in the JCR, the student bar, the campus cafe and the common room that you will find the innovation.
Secondly, if you read my most recent blog for this site, you will know that I’m currently going through a period of resurrecting a long-lost interest in history. In that blog I called for more attention to be made to historical parallels when discussing and thinking about technology, society and development. Here, the parallel is clear: the expanding tech hub landscape today (across the world, and on the African continent) arguably has striking parallels with the coffeehouse scene of the 1600s.
Despite the globalised, technology-driven, networked and de-territorial world that we now live in, there still seems to be a demand for physical spaces with low barriers to entry which bring people together to collaborate, work across disciplines, innovate and share access to technology, ideas and caffeine. If tech hubs can reproduce the innovative atmosphere of the 1600s coffeehouses, they will be well on their way to contributing to society and to developmental outcomes.
Ultimately, we need to think more creatively about technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and development on the African continent. The coffeehouses of the 1600s – and in my experience, the coffee shops of London and Oxford today – clearly tell us that innovation often springs from unexpected, organic, informal (and caffeine-driven) spaces.
And yes, before you ask, I wrote this blog in a coffee shop. The constant stream of people, the buzz of conversation, and the assistance of a flat white continue to be my biggest sources of inspiration.
This is a short paper I will be presenting at the Global Public Policy Network Conference in Tokyo in December. A couple of people have asked me to send it to them and I’m lazy so I thought I’d put it up on here.
Citizens exist in wider networks in which they are more connected than ever before. So far, government led initiatives to react to this new reality have been tokenistic and too focused on benefits related to communication strategies than serious improvements to public institutions. This reflects an unpopular cynical political reality that will have to adapt in the future: with that adaptation will come improvements and innovations to public institutions.
In response to the 2007 post-election turmoil in Kenya, a small team of bloggers and programmers put together a website to record and categorise eye-witness accounts of incidents of violence as well as mapping them online as a resource for other citizens. This website, Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’ in Kiswahili), was found to be more accurate and more timely than information supplied by both the traditional media and the government1.
This platform for responsive, open information has since been implemented in a number of crises around the world including the Haiti earthquake of 2010, the so-called Arab Spring on 2011 and during the Queensland floods in Australia in 2012. Ushahidi has received a huge amount of praise and shown itself to be adaptable to many situations.
The Open Government movement (OGM) has been growing in support since the advent of the networked age but, in particular, since 2008 when President Obama brought it to the mainstream by declaring his dedication “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.2” The public will become included, relevant, vital in the policy process by giving them access to the pertinent data – that’s the ideal of Open Government.
Obama’s government in particular has come under massive scrutiny for which data it chooses to publish. Furthermore, the inclusion of the public into such matters leaves much to be desired – Obama’s administration has harboured an unprecedented hostility for whistleblowers and leaks of any kind, rather than openness.
They are not alone. Numerous other Governments that have preached the virtues of openness have since been embarrassed by revelations from civil society actors, the media and the public about hypocrisy on this matter. A look at the list of past and present member states of the Open Government Partnership (the global initiative that Obama’s administration helped to start with the aim to spread the mission of the OGM) has some high-profile cases: the UK, Brazil, South Africa, and Russia probably the biggest.
While the OGM has laudable theoretical foundations, the current wave is too government dominated. These ‘open governments’ only publish what they want to publish – ‘openness’ is defined primarily in terms of what these dominant actors perceive will benefit them, not the general public.
Trust in governments has fallen behind other major social institutions in recent years3. Business, the media and NGOs are now, more than ever, regarded as a safer bet by the general public. Any new framework for crisis response must take into account the high degree of scepticism that governments now face: government agencies are not necessarily regarded as the best choice to control these situations. While they might remain the best choice for now, this deep-seated mistrust will likely hamper crisis response in the future if it is not addressed.
The general public expects to be involved in processes now, in feedback mechanisms and in sharing. The promise of massive smart-web access has been bought into: the explosion of smartphone devices in both the developed and developing world is evidence of this. It is a phenomenon that government has yet to truly embrace: the sharing age of internet communication is a two-way street. The benefits of this paradigm are particularly clear in instances of disasters when public institutions are most likely out of position and outmatched – no institution can be prepared for everything.
The failings of the OGM to date are thrown into harsh relief by the relative success of IT start-ups like Ushahidi. The modern world is a networked society4 and citizens expect to be given full and prompt access to information in times of crisis. Given a well managed platform, citizens will collaborate in the face of adversity to try to guide crisis management. What they will not respond well to is governments withholding information in the wake of crises – the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake is an excellent example of withdrawn or manipulated information to the public backfiring5.
There will be situations in which withheld information has a clear benefit – as in ongoing terrorist attacks like the tragedy in Westgate Mall earlier this year. It is, in such cases, important to relay the reasoning of the managing public body as and when the situations arise. It is also vital not to allow governments to hide behind such reasons without proper scrutiny of these decisions after the danger has passed. The government must engage with technological advances and the related cultural changes in society to restore public trust in them.
Crisis management can be improved by establishing a foundation of meaningful openness. Borrowing techniques from the private sector or partnering with such experts as the team behind Ushahidi would be an excellent step. It is incredibly difficult to coordinate and manage resources during crises; it is even more difficult to do so when various groups of people are poorly or incorrectly informed. It is the role of public institutions to endeavour that this happens as little as possible.
1: Clay Shirky, 2011. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin: London
2: Barack Obama, 2009. Memorandum to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies: Transparency and Open Government. [Link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment]
3: Edelman, 2013. Trust Barometer. [Link: http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/trust-2013/]
4: Manuel Castells, 2009. Communication Power. Oxford University Press: Oxford
5: Norimitsu Onishi & Martin Fackler, New York Times, 2011. Japan Held Nuclear Data, eaving Evacuees in Peril. [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/world/asia/09japan.html?pagewanted=all]
“…the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which the idea comes to mind”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
The psychological research done by Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky has extended far beyond their own fields. Nudge, a political science book on the use of simple persuasive techniques to cut the costs of policy programmes (example: engraved flies in public urinals) has been photographed in the hands of a number of notable politicians. Without a huge amount of public information or fanfare policies are being implemented around you with the intention of subtly influencing how you respond to the world around you.
It is often noted that the way in which the general public perceive large or complex issues is flawed. People in the West, for example, are pretty certain that Africa has more wars than Asia, or that certain public health issues are much worse than they really are. This is understandable. There is an enormous amount of bad, misleading or downright incorrect information flying around. A recent piece in Salon documented how this barrage of hateful but clear and memorable information can radically alter people’s world-views. Psychological research (and received wisdom) tells us that people are more likely to believe something if a) they hear about it all the time and b) it is delivered with a heightened emotional charge. Enter Paul Dacre, Rush Limbaugh and Martin Ssempa.
This can happen with less extreme narratives as well.
Recently, Jeffrey Sachs has been taking a collective kicking from the development blogosphere – Humanosphere noted this rather unpleasant industry pile-on in this post. To an extent, I agree with Tom Paulson’s point here – the development community is overly insular and has far too few public champions of any substance, perhaps part of this backlash is to do with tall poppy syndrome. Furthermore, Sachs’ biggest critics have been those focused on measurement rather than message. The vituperative put downs seems like an overreaction, in the wide scheme of things.
But there is more to this debate than measurement.
Jeffrey Sachs promised a lot more than a well functioning, measurable development project. He promised nothing less than The End of Poverty. Which is a pretty big claim whichever way you look at it, even if it did have the giant red flag of a foreword by Bono.
This narrative garnered enormous support from hugely visible figures. It went far beyond the relatively small bubble of development. It was a narrative delivered again and again by impassioned supporters, replete with harrowing statistics and images of suffering all over the world. Not only was there a sense of scale for just how terrible things are in the world but, now, unlike with Biafra or the folly of LiveAid, there was a clear roadmap to how we all could help to stop it.
The simplicity of the narrative was key – as Kahneman tells us, simple ideas feel easier to think through and so seem more convincing. The other benefit of this simplicity is that it was easy to parrot, easy to repeat, easy to spread.
“A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”
International development doesn’t get a lot of play in the media. There are only two major news organisations that I can think of that have any specialised interest section for it (find them here). It’s an extremely complicated issue which isn’t a big vote winner – of course it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media outside of disasters. So when somebody does get a narrative out there from the world of international development it’s a big deal for the sector. A lot of the negativity surrounding Sachs isn’t about just about measurement, it’s about disappointment that this rare chance was wasted.
As interns in the development arena, we constitute the “bottom rung” of a very large and diverse industry of practitioners, academics, and knowledgeable commentators and bloggers. A media hungry reader might stubble upon this blog and find him/herself wondering why thoughts from this lowly subterranean bottom rung are worth reading.
Well, you skeptical pragmatist you, what we offer here is an outsider’s look – authors with minds somewhat untamed and untarnished by industry assumptions.
Some might call that condition ignorance. I call it perspective.
Sure, we lack experience and expertise in many ways. But we also lack bad habits, excessive cynicism and the lazy thinking of familiarity. Based on that one can derive a rather grandiose mission statement for this humble blog [Ed. Play nice!] – question what others might have accepted. If we are indeed to give inquisition a fair shot, I suppose it is fitting that we start at square one:
Why is that we label nations as ‘developed’ and ‘developing?’ (or ‘under-developed’ or ‘less developed’)
These terms are the most basic of a complex vocabulary that constitutes our industry discourse, and yet with this first step, it seems we have already come into difficult territory
The term ‘developed’ has an air of completion. Its use of the past tense seems to indicate that we in the industrialized nations have crossed some theoretical finish line.
Additionally it gives undue credit to the process that got the industrial world where it is, as well as a certain authority to push that model off onto others. However, there are some serious weaknesses to the model that deserve recognition. If every ‘developing’ nation managed to cross the threshold and earn the ‘-ed,’ we would need another seven or so planets to provide the needed resources to sustain that sort of global affluence.
The term ‘developing’ on the other hand oozes influences of ‘modernization theory’. This is the idea that there is one road from poverty, a designated path that leads to prosperity. Often in the texts of academics and practitioners alike one will find comparison to 15th century England, Early 17th century Europe, or China Pre-1978 being applied to diverse regions with unique cultural and historic backgrounds.
It isn’t good enough.
While this critique of discourse may seem a bit overwrought that doesn’t change the fact that our terms are lacking. After all, Harry Truman first launched this lexicon of “the under-developed regions of the world” in his 1949 inauguration address. Keeping in mind that Western thinking at the time justified colonization across the globe, we may want to avoid considering the leaders of that paradigm our ‘founding fathers’. The Cold War’s contribution of ‘the third world’ (i.e. that which lies between the spheres of the US and capitalism and the USSR and communism) has improved our vocabulary very little, if at all.
As interns we have a unique capacity to evaluate this discourse. When a new term is introduced to you in your work and it seems a bit odd, consider the possibility that it is not solely because it is novel to your ears.
Keep your questions and maintain your suspicions.
Certainly you will have a limited capacity to alter this industry’s terminology and learning it may seem challenging enough. However, simply adapting to it perpetuates current flaws and stifles our collective imagination. So let’s think of some new terms.