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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Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 2)

Written by Hannah Todd

HART distributes emergency aid to its partners as the need arises. When it does so HART has the ability and agility to do so rapidly with targeted relief. Even if the size of donation is much smaller than larger NGOs, feedback from our partners has reinforced the importance of this facility. For example, in South Sudan one of our partners told us: “You gave little but in time. Others gave more but it came too late.”

HART responded to the refugee crisis in South Sudan with emergency aid to its partners in Bahr-El-Ghazal, Wau. Funds were also given for the purchase of seeds and tools for cultivation, anticipating that food shortages would be exacerbated by the rainy season. The type of aid HART supplied here had one eye on the future as well as dealing with the immediate problems the community was experiencing. The delivery of appropriate relief in South Sudan is but one example of how need can be combined with the necessity for sustainability.

Traditionally the time gap between emergency aid being withdrawn and developmental aid being injected into a society by major donors has been too large.

The two forms of aid have been too rigidly divided: aid distribution should not just coincide with the outbreak of conflict or natural disasters (frequently exacerbated by conflict). Rather, if aid is to be preventative as well as palliative then it should be given in times of peace and stability as well as conflict and hardship. In other words emergency aid should be combined with developmental aid. It is during crises of leadership (that cause or are caused by humanitarian disasters) that the seeds of development should be sown.

HART makes a special effort to ask its partners to identify their priorities for aid, thereby giving them the dignity of choice and respecting their knowledge of the problems confronting their people. For example, in Jos, Nigeria, HART visited a Peace Initiative Project earlier this year that seeks to heal relations between Muslims and Christians in the region through teaching entrepreneurial skills. The project has since sent HART detailed accounts of their most urgent needs which range from desktop computers to basic carpentry equipment. HART regularly visits its target communities to highlight these needs, to gather first-hand evidence of human rights violations (for example, in South Kordofan), and to ensure that it is fulfilling its remit in the most responsible and appropriate way possible.

International implications

Part of HART’s strength is its small size which helps keep it focused on the individuals it works with. Of course, larger NGOs and donor governments cannot hope to replicate this level of extremely personal and flexible care because with increased size comes increased responsibility. But what they can do is to adopt some of the approaches HART uses to build these relationships and apply them at a high political level. It is precisely because at this level bilateral and multilateral aid make up the vast proportion of international aid that it is vital that the art of sustainability is mastered.

Many critics have argued that bilateral and multilateral aid given in the form of concessional loans and grants is unsustainable and should be reduced, if not cut off altogether. The problems they cite straddle the social (government corruption and patronage) and economic (trade barriers between neighbouring countries) and all ultimately come down to the exacerbation of aid dependency. This is precisely where the values behind locally-led aid and development initiatives become vital.

It is possible for the ‘partner model’ of aid and development exemplified by HART to be scaled up to a macroeconomic level.

For example, applied at an international level the observation that aid should be invested locally and for a finite amount of time could solve the growing convergence between concessional loans and grants in the realm of international aid. Not differentiating between these two mechanisms of aid distribution – assuming that a loan will eventually turn into a grant – instils a lack of initiative in recipient governments. There is no incentive for them to nurture a fledgling situation of prosperousness so that they can escape the reliance on in-flows of aid to which they have become accustomed.

HART’s Projects Coordinator, David Thomas, says that one of the joys of being involved in HART is to see people’s enthusiasm to rebuild their communities before they have to worry about their ‘track record’ to impress larger aid agencies. It is this spark that larger aid organisations as well as governments need to capitalise on to make aid go further and last longer. The enthusiasm and trust that HART nurtures in its relationship with its partners is the vital aspect of sustainable development that continues to elude major donors and hamper their drive towards eliminating aid dependency.

Sustainability is about scaling up successful models of development. If international governments do not begin to realise this and learn from the models provided by smaller organisations such as HART then we will find that “sustainability” – currently an ever-evolving buzzword within the world of development – is still being discussed as the major hurdle to development in another fifteen years.

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Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 1)

Written by Hannah Todd

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming and criticism of aid unabating, governments have begun to increase cooperation between departments towards the creation of a successor to the MDGs – the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), due to be launched next year. Specifically this forges a triangle between economics, development and political strategy that has been lacking from aid and development to date.

Although bilateral aid (passing directly between governments) and multilateral aid (between countries via aid agencies and/or multilateral institutions) dwarfs the charitable and emergency aid of smaller NGOs like Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) it is important that we do not disregard the work of such agencies. It is precisely because smaller organisations have less margin for waste that they are forced to maximise their own efficiency. They thereby gain a better grasp of sustainability and their morals and mechanisms of working should arguably be made more central to the politics of bilateral and multilateral aid distribution.

Organisations such as HART not only help the communities they work with but also strive to engage with the principles and responsibilities surrounding aid and development. The most illuminating lesson I have learnt through working with HART this summer has been that aid is not cold hard cash. Instead, it is a decision. Most importantly, it is a decision that affects the course of a communities’ history. If delivered in the right way, for the right length of time, and in the most appropriate form aid has the potential to lay the foundations for an affluent and peaceful society.

Aid distribution: partners

The way aid is delivered dictates its value. HART exists to support its partners on the ground in eight countries around the world. Many international organisations can only go to locations with the permission of a sovereign government. But because HART’s partners are local, it maintains access to these areas even during times of crisis – when others have been forced to withdraw, either through conflict or because permission is withdrawn by the government. HART has no in-country staff and so if violence breaks out it doesn’t have an obligation to pull its staff out. In other words, HART maintains an access point to societies in need when they are most in need.

HART’s partners know how society works in their country and can achieve things that outsiders cannot. They are both the recipients and distributors of the aid HART sends them and this makes them more able to lay a sustainable foundation for the work that they do. The ‘partner model’ restores local agency and makes HART’s aid a form of private investment albeit without the conditions of repayment. HART’s aid provides the capital for project start-ups, local crisis relief and a range of other initiatives that contribute towards the overall improvement of a community’s standard of living.

This model successfully promotes sustainable development. The relationship is temporary and the supply of aid is withdrawn once the partner has built up their own contacts, thereby enabling them to continue along the path they started with HART’s help.

The unique role aid agencies such as HART play in facilitating this starting point is lending their voice and unique access to international governments that partners on the ground lack. This highlights the importance of the second of HART’s twofold remit: advocacy. Frequently partners move onto bigger funders but it was HART who got their work off the ground and HART who can recommend them as a referee in their applications to larger funders. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Yei, South Sudan, is one such example. Its healthcare clinics and agriculture projects no longer need funding from HART because EPC has grown to the point where it can forge partnerships across the country on its own and teach others, drawing on its now considerable experience.

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