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.


Cognitive Dissonance: An Unspoken Qualification for Aid Work?

This post was published originally on WhyDev

Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut.

After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.”

I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.

As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out.

The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.

Working in development. By Ahmed El-Mezeny.
By Ahmed El-Mezeny

Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative.

Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.

In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.

“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.

They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another.

I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?”

A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.

A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone.

Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine.

Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades.

Though I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, I’ve yet to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m still not sure how to continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. So instead of leaving you with some profound realization, I’ll end with a question to older, wiser (just take the compliment) development practitioners.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.

Experiences, Projects

Tales From Haiti: Who to work with

As a minor with no real connection to any organization working abroad, one of the most difficult parts of my journey has been trying to find places who will let me work with them. In my search for somewhere that would accept a teenager starting a laptop project, I emailed dozens of schools and groups. I got a lot of negative responses – many were rightly cautious about me being too young or about the project being too disruptive to their classes.

Finally, I ended up at Sadhana Forest. It’s an organization that started in India around 10 years ago and just set up a reforestation project here in Ansapit. They’re a very open and alternative-ish community, so neither my age or my methods are an issue. Also, they’re charging me just $4 a day, and I like the location: Ansapit is a larger village (12,500 people) right on the border with the Dominican.

All good reasons for being here, although I worried a little about how I’d fit in with these self-described “practical hippies.” There’s a lot to get used to, from vegan meals and using toilets Indian-style (no toilet paper) to answering questions like “What’s the most beautiful thing in the world to you, right now?” [Ed: Give me strength] first thing in the morning.

It’s actually been great – I used to be a lot more “hippie” and spiritual a few years ago, and now I’m getting exposed to those old grooves again and remembering how helpful it is to take care of myself. At first the four hours of planting and other work every day were a little frustrating – the last summer I rushed all day long from class to class and I missed that rhythm of all education, all the time.

Now I’m learning to be grateful for the chance to stop and think.

One of the things I had to stop and think about was where the best home for the project would be. I’d come down expecting to hold classes at Sadhana, but then I got another offer from Babou. Babou is a local guy who’s very involved – he’s secretary of GPLA (a local community group), a teacher at an orphanage and a coordinator for Sadhana. My second night here he took me to the beach and we had one of those long late-night talks where you mull over a bunch of things that might not ever see the light of day.

One concrete thing that did come out of that conversation, though, was a new location for Project Rive. We’re now holding classes over at GPLA’s office. It’s a great opportunity, because the original vision for this was and still is a community center run by locals.

Sadhana has a great atmosphere, but most of the people there are from somewhere else.

Now we’re meeting in a place that’s really the center of the community, which is better than what I was expecting. The only problem is I wasn’t expecting it – I had to adjust to whole new set of parameters very fast.

First of all, I still don’t know quite what to think of GPLA. They have a large membership, which is encouraging. It’s just that the first two meetings I attended were just the director talking about how he needs money for his plans and how hard he’s working. But maybe I shouldn’t be judging – this might just be the way things are done in Haiti, as some have told me. And if the director is asking me for a camera and a WiFi connection, I should look at it as a substitute for the rent I don’t have to pay for the space.

Still, when Babou said something along the lines of “GPLA is partially responsible for this project and can fire any teachers who aren’t doing their job” I put my foot down and explained that, no, Unleash Kids (the organization I work with, who gave me laptops, solar panels, and training) has got the hiring and firing covered.

I could tell that Babou wants to have more control of the project – he actually said at one point that we should charge the computers using the bigger and better solar panels at his house. It’s great to have his backing, and this project will ultimately rest on the shoulders of one or two people, but I guess I’d rather have one or two people strongly invested in the project, rather than the project being strongly invested in one or two people.

I don’t know if that makes sense…


This is a post by Sora Edwards-Thro, a 17 year old volunteer for Unleash Kids in Haiti. She is, even for this site, impressively young to be struggling with the complexities of development work. She will be using this site as a forum for talking through these difficulties and would be very welcome to advice from more experienced development workers.

Haitian tap tap

I’m writing this from Haiti, with ten other laptops I’m going to be using to start an education project at my side and a Skype conversation with the board of directors of an organization supporting it open in another window. This blog is partly for you but mostly for me – no need for donor propaganda here; just some honesty about what it’s like to be plunging in to this sort of thing.

I’ve been in Haiti for a week. We’ll start the story at the first disaster (don’t worry: there are good parts too): I actually missed my first flight out, which could have been absolutely terrible. This project is completely supported by donors, and even if they would have been willing to pay for the cost of another flight to cover my mistake, losing that much of other people’s money that was intended to help kids in Haiti just because I couldn’t get to the airport on time would probably kill me a little inside.

Luckily, I just happened to be wearing a shirt that said “Apps for Edu” and told the lady about how I was late because I had been buying mice for laptops for charity. She managed to put me on the next flight out, enabling me to make all my other connections, and at no extra charge. So it all worked out, but it made me realize just how scary it really is to be responsible and accountable for donations, especially when those donations are intended to benefit other people.

Every dollar I have to spend to correct a mistake is one less dollar for the project.

This might just be part of how I work, too, though. I screw up probably a little more than someone who’s more cautious and I’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to fix whatever I did wrong. For example: after not sleeping for 48 hours (not the night before my flight, and not during my overnight layover in New York), I was too drowsy getting off the plane in Haiti to remember that I was supposed to be buying a NATCOM Internet stick [Ed: the first 3G plugin modem available in Haiti] and a Digicel telephone and ended up with a NATCOM phone and Internet stick. As soon as I realized my mistake I tried to return the phone and ended up talking to the cashiers for an hour, trying to convince them to take it back in Haitian Creole. They didn’t budge, unfortunately, but often that extra effort and a little bit of luck does make the difference and I can fix the things I break.

From the airport James, Junior and I went to Junior’s house. James is another young guy (19) starting another laptop project on a mountain near Port-au-Prince, and Junior is slightly older (25) and has been teaching a class with the laptops in Grand-Goave, a nearby town and another one in a nearby orphanage.

We were officially there to help Junior develop a newspaper at the Grand-Goave school but we had a lot of unofficial jobs as well. James and I worked together to develop lesson plans for the newspaper launch, and we figured out early on that we were learning a lot more from our experience than the kids would probably ever learn from those classes.

First of all, there were were a lot of unforeseen challenges: we were thinking we’d be teaching three classes with twenty kids each, bringing the total to sixty kids, but actually it was just three classes of twenty kids maximum, with the same ones showing up for multiple classes. There were also a big variety of skill levels, with some kids who didn’t know how to click and others who were ready to start some basic programming.

That, and we realized that our role wasn’t really to force the kids to generate some content but to expose them to new ways of creating content and new activities on the laptops. I showed Junior how to transcribe sheet music notes into XO keyboard notes that the kids can use to play songs. There were a lot of good moments throughout the week and the pressure was on us to then ensure that Junior would be able to reproduce them on his own after we left.

Early Sunday morning I said good-bye to Junior and started off on my 12-hour journey to Anse-a-Pitres,in the deep south-eastern corner of the country. I traveled with another volunteer, first in tap-taps and then perched on the top of an oil truck. Quite a journey!

We finally arrived, and it’s been an interesting two days so far. The organization I’m staying with is here to improve the environment , so there’s sort of a hippie flavor to everything (well, they describe themselves as productive hippies). I’m going to have to learn some things like going to the bathroom without toilet paper if I want to fit in here, but it’s interesting to spend some time being exposed to this perspective, and I’m actually enjoying the time I spend in the morning planting and watering trees. It’s nice to get dirty and to put something in the ground that wasn’t there before. I guess the only thing I really won’t get used to is how relaxed they all are – I’m used to spending all my time abroad rushing around from one activity to the next, and here most people actually relax all afternoon.

We had our first class yesterday – just kind of an intro to the five teachers I’ll be working with over the next month. Later tonight I go to a community meeting to speak about the project with them. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm so far, and a a local guy named Nixon who’s very involved had a long conversation with me about how excited he is and how he wants to see it continue. This week I’ll be spending two hours a day with just the teachers, trying to get them up to speed before we introduce the kids next week. Fingers crossed that the solar panels survived their tap-tap ride and can provide the power, and that everyone catches on quickly.

I know it’s going to be a lot of work to get this thing up and running, but it would be nice to have as few glitches as possible along the way.

Experiences, Platform, Projects

Tales From Haiti: Arrival