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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Advocate

“Whatever the professional standards may be, very often officials adopt certain institutions and tools because it is the thing to do, not because there is firm evidence to show a certain effect on a particular objective.”

From an ODI paper on the 2013 CAPE Conference: Budgeting for the real world

While, in context, this quote is aimed at bureaucrats and government officials, I think we can all recognise such problems in other organisations. While the burden of evidence can still stick in the craw of many (see the recent dressing down of the usually excellent blog Africa Is A Country by Laura Seay over a poor critique of a Washington Post piece on Jay Ulfelder‘s work on predicting coups) this short sentence highlights the dangers of getting by without it.

Yes, it can be misused. Yes, it can distract from the realities of a situation. But to ignore it altogether is undoubtedly much worse.

A Quick Reminder Of Why Evidence Matters

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Commentary, Platform

Managing Risk or Creating It? The Real Message Behind the 2014 World Development Report

This past Sunday, the World Bank released it’s 2014 World Development Report titled Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risks for Development. This report delves into the process of risk management, looking at how it should be conducted, what obstacles prevent people and societies from conducting it effectively, and how these specific obstacles should be overcome.

The theme of this years report will not come as a surprise to most, as ‘resilience’ is one of development’s sexiest new buzzwords. In the age of aid effectiveness, these concepts have massive appeal to donors because proactive and systematic risk management can help to build resilience and protect hard-won development gains (read: investments).

While on the surface the report focuses on preparing for, preventing, and mitigating risk, the real message that the World Bank hammers home is about creating an environment where people are less averse to taking risks. Many people may be baffled by this concept – why would we want to invest in risk management only to encourage more risk? Let’s follow the argument.

Under the leadership of Dr. Jim Yong Kim (the President), the World Bank has set out to transform risk management from being viewed as merely a control function to one that is more dynamic and responsive to change. When risk management is only focused on regulation and preventing potential losses, it results in missed opportunities day after day. In his forward to the report, Kim illustrates the link between risks and opportunities:

“Pursuing opportunities requires taking risks, but many people, especially the poor, are often reluctant to do so, because they fear the potential negative consequences. Failure to act can trap people in poverty, leaving them vulnerable to negative shocks and even less able to pursue opportunities that would otherwise improve their well-being”.

The report cites the example of farmers in Ghana and India whose access to rainfall insurance has encouraged them to take on risks in search of higher yields, such as increasing their investments in fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, and other inputs. Taking these risks has led to increased prosperity and other positive development outcomes. Conversely, Ethiopian farmers who lack access to risk management tools often choose not to use fertilizer because they fear drought and other potential shocks. They prefer to stash their money in a mattress for when the next dry spell comes, as opposed to investing in intermediate inputs

In many cases, the risk of inaction is often the worst option of all.

Illustrating the extent to which risk management can unlock constructive development opportunities is the first step towards changing the way people perceive risk, and how they strategize and execute risk management.

This past summer, Dr. Jim Yong Kim came to my work place (the North-South Institute) for a round-table discussion with key leaders of Canada’s private, academic, and third sectors. This was the first time that I really started thinking about risks and rewards in development. While the Bank’s 2014 report looks mostly at risk on the micro level, during the round-table discussion Dr. Kim mentioned that the Bank itself must become more bold and not be afraid to take risks to support projects that have the potential to transform a country or a region. While one of the key constraints in development may be an individual or nation’s aversion to risk, international development institutions and donors are equally guilty of this.

I think that part of the World Bank’s underlying strategy is that by changing the way institutions think about risk and risk management on-the-ground, it might lead them to adapt the way they approach risk internally. While a farmer may shy away from taking risks because they fear negative repercussions, a donor agency may not pursue a new project or strategy that has the potential to transform a country due to fear of resource waste, pressure to avoid fiduciary risks, or concern that the outcome will have negative effects on their reputation ( for more take a look at this ODI report).

Now, I’m not saying that international development agencies and donors should start taking crazy risks in search of massive rewards (à la Wall Street traders). That is simply not possible, especially due to the role that public opinion plays in development and foreign aid. However, I do think that we need to eliminate incentives to take part in excessive risk aversion if we want to see truly substantial and transformative change.

In my opinion, individuals, societies, and institutions could be doing a much better job at managing the trade-offs between risk, opportunity, and reward, and implementing effective risk management strategies will be the first step towards remedying this.

So what do you think? Do you agree that excessive risk aversion is hurting development? Do you think that implementing risk management strategies will actually encourage people to take “smart risks”? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

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