Refugees in Jamam camp queue up to receive buckets and soap as part of Oxfam's public health campaign to reduce the spread of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and Hepatitis E in the camp. Refugees in Jamam camp queue up to receive buckets and soap as part of Oxfam's public health campaign to reduce the spread of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and Hepatitis E in the camp. Photo credit: Oxfam East Africa

Investing in a localised aid system must not mean stepping back from international assistance

by Gareth Price-Jones
19 January 2021

In his opinion piece last December Hugo Slim argued that big humanitarian bureaucracies had failed to make sufficient progress on localisation, and that therefore the major donors should divert funding to national humanitarian platforms. Hugo suggests that a key blockage is the ‘overblown’ operational footprint of big humanitarian agencies, which is ‘crowding out new talent, energy and organisation in crisis countries. They need to get out of the way and let other models and more local organisations flourish’.

In fact, international actors have been getting out of the way for years. Despite headline growth in income, their operational footprint has long been shrinking relative to needs: over the last decade international organisations have reduced their planned response, with requested funding per person decreasing from $192 in 2011 to $171 in 2020, while in the same period global GDP per person increased by 149%, to over $20 trillion+1. Data sourced from the 2020 Global Humanitarian Overview, the 2013 Global Humanitarian Assistance report and World Bank figures.. And, of course, that ask has never been fully funded.

International organisations are not reducing their capacity and ambition because they’re confident that local governments or NGOs can already meet needs better than they can, or because the job is done – it clearly isn’t – but because they simply don’t have the funding and people they need. Covid-related aid cuts, in terms of both planned responses and resources actually received, will almost certainly see a further step back in 2021.

As a result, even with growing local capacity, there will be greater unmet needs and more preventable human suffering. Despite recent successes – for example preventing famines in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen in 2017, in which international organisations played a critical role – the risk of failure remains acute. In 2021 we risk new famines, in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Burkina Faso, as well as the continued impacts of Covid and worsening conflict-related suffering across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

In this context, most international actors think that, as well as being the right thing to do, localising aid will result in faster and better assistance, and more of it, reducing the load on international aid organisations and equipping local partners for the long term, where some will continue to work closely with us, and others will progress alone. Localisation may not always result in better aid, but we think it will provide more options – and is thus lower risk and more resilient – than continuing to focus on an over-internationalised system.

But supporting localisation doesn’t mean that international organisations should shrink, or that they should be trying to do themselves out of a job. Nothing in our assessments suggests that would be appropriate, and it would in any case require a radical rethink of the roles of civil society, government and international solidarity. In almost every context there will remain a major role for international organisations, even when a much higher proportion of needs are met by local actors.

International actors provide institutional frameworks and systems that enable access and set global norms. As recent ODI research highlights, they are well-placed to advocate with and influence the global media, powerful governments, multinationals and multilateral forums such as the Security Council, the EU, ASEAN and the African Union. They need to do more of this, not less – when it is precisely these policy, advocacy and convening roles that are the first to be cut when funding is short and donors, donor governments and host governments insist we prioritise ‘concrete outcomes’. These roles are almost always more effective (and are often financially subsidised) when they are closely connected to service delivery on the ground.

Global brands such as Save the Children and UNICEF also bring top-flight marketing, funding and communication capacity that is difficult (and takes decades) to develop. Most large agencies contribute these capacities not only to their own narrow interests or mandate, but through coordination to a wider global humanitarian and media ecosystem, amplifying the voices of affected people across the world.

There may be ways in which networks of independent local organisations can replicate as well as complement such capacity: the Charter4Change and organisations like NEAR and A4EP are developing ideas for this. But it seems likely that, for local organisations, in a range of areas – funding, advocacy, policy, communications and marketing, and even in some areas of operational delivery such as cash and food – transaction costs will remain high and economies of scale low, compared to international actors.

Everyone recognises that local actors need more money, and that power and resources need to be rebalanced in their favour. But the solution must not come at the cost of other parts of the global humanitarian ‘ecosystem’. Rather than being scaled down, international organisations will need to continue growing, providing essential added value and economies of scale even as local actors become more empowered and more capable.

Hugo is right that humanitarian bureaucracies are resistant to change. But I suggest that the biggest reason for that is not bureaucratic self-preservation, but rather a well-founded fear that we risk reducing existing international capacity that we all need – further limiting the voice and much needed assistance to the world’s most vulnerable women, men, girls, and boys.

Gareth Price-Jones is the Executive Secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), which includes many well-recognised international NGOs and has been a signatory to the Grand Bargain since 2016. In addition, many SCHR members are also signatories to the Charter4Change, through which they have made specific commitments to transfer recognition, practical power and influence, as well as resources, to local actors. He tweets on humanitarian issues @GPJGeneva.

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