Refugee group in Uganda. Refugee group in Uganda. Photo credit: AYWAD
Strength, voice and space: making locally led response a reality
by Juliet Eyokia, Md. Abdul Latif, Peter Ochepa and Petra Righetti May 2021

The Empowering Local and National Humanitarian Actors (ELNHA) programme is a five-year project funded by the IKEA Foundation and implemented in Uganda and Bangladesh. It proposed an alternative and more effective approach to humanitarian response based on more equitable, collaborative partnerships between international and local responders. The project focused on finding ways to connect meaningfully, based on evidence that local actors and organisations are already driving responses in many areas.

ELNHA was shaped by three core complementary strategies:

  1. Strength, which was concerned with ‘the collective and organisational capacity of local and national humanitarian actors (LNHAs) to design, lead and deliver humanitarian responses’.
  2. Voice, related to ‘influencing the local and national humanitarian agenda through coordination and advocacy among LNHAs’.
  3. Space, which was concerned with influencing the overall international humanitarian architecture, and sometimes national architecture, in order to create an enabling environment for local humanitarian leadership.

Structurally, the ELNHA programme worked by funding local-level networks, coordinated by trusted subnational and national NGOs, with technical and coordination support from Oxfam. This structure served to reimagine how we worked together. The project faced a number of barriers posed by the sector’s power dynamics, culture, funding and incentive structures, making it challenging to transform and innovate. In the findings below we reference three key behaviours that reflect the barriers posed by international actors, as perceived by local actors:

  1. Lack of interest in participating in locally initiated joint action planning and in joining local networks.
  2. International actors’ lack of capacity to adapt their role and function based on the capacity already on the ground (i.e. working in complementarity).
  3. Limitations in international actors’ ability to fund based on need rather than on their due diligence requirements.

Despite these challenges, ELNHA was able to bring together more than 250 local actors from Uganda and Bangladesh to strengthen a movement towards a more decentralised and locally owned model for humanitarian response. In this article ELNHA local partners – Community Empowerment for Rural Development (CEFORD) in West Nile, Uganda; SORUDA (formerly Soroti Rural Development Agency), located in the Eastern Region of Uganda; and Garib Unnayan Sangstha (GUS) in Kurigram, Bangladesh – and their international partner, Oxfam, share their experience and learning.

Main features of the project

Traditionally, projects are designed by international organisations and then implemented by local actors. This practice has been shown to be both ineffective in building local ownership and in promoting sustainable outcomes. So the first question for Oxfam was how to ensure the design of the project was flexible enough to be determined locally, while having a clearly defined framework to secure – and assure – our donor’s funding commitment. The solution was to establish two funds (a capacity fund and a response grant facility), one for capacity-strengthening and one to respond to emergencies, without defining ahead of time in what ways and for what activities these would be accessed. The only parameter was that both funding mechanisms would be exclusively accessible to local actors. Such a set-up was possible in great part thanks to the foresight and openness of the donor to test this novel approach.

Next, a diverse range of local actors (from local government, the media, civil society and the private sector) were invited to come together at district and national level in Uganda and Bangladesh, to reflect on the gaps and strengths of their local humanitarian structures and organisations, and determine which actions needed to be taken to improve them. The driving principle was that most local problems can be solved locally and all can contribute to strengthening the system of actors that respond to people’s needs in emergencies. Collectively these stakeholders developed a long-term vision of change – a joint action plan (JAP) – that they implemented, together, to tackle barriers and capacity gaps. Actors were identified based on a context analysis of the humanitarian capacity of the districts and the country, facilitated by Oxfam and coordinated by local NGO leads at the district level.

In addition, in case of a humanitarian emergency, local NGOs in the ELNHA network could apply to the response grant facility to implement a self-designed response for their affected area. In a break from traditional practice, the intention of the model was to allow local NGOs to define their own programmes and build experience and confidence in project design, proposal development and implementation. As reflected by GUS in Bangladesh, the experience led to ownership, recognition and visibility in humanitarian coordination spaces, and supported capacity-strengthening and learning through practical, direct experience.

The activities defined by local actors ranged from organisational capacity-strengthening in finance or procurement, for example, but were also more system-wide: conducting joint needs assessments, coordinating early warning systems, developing contingency plans aligned to district government, inclusive disaster policies, and more. These initiatives to improve the functioning of local structures were key in shifting mindsets (of both local actors and international organisations) by forcing us to think more long-term (beyond the project) and improving accountability between local actors and crisis-affected people/communities rather than merely accountability towards a donor. Accountability between local actors (also termed ‘horizontal accountability’) was an important element of the project and was fostered through a process of collectively agreeing on a common ambition, setting out the steps to get there and allocating roles and responsibilities to each other. Such accountability evolved through the process of developing and implementing the JAP and by responding to emergencies as a consortium of local actors. We have seen that, by learning to work together, local actors establish networks and partnerships of trust and cooperation that strengthen their response capacity and their influencing of the humanitarian agenda.

In terms of the funding oversight, some of the larger local organisations were budget holders who coordinated activities implemented by a network of local actors. When required, Oxfam provided technical support and quality assurance, linked actors with national and international spaces, and compiled learning.

What was the experience of local actors and Oxfam on this project?

The main reflections of CEFORD, SORUDA and GUS on the experience can be summarised as follows:

By engaging diverse actors, new opportunities for collaboration emerged. Local governments in the West Nile region, Uganda and in Kurigram, Bangladesh now engage local NGOs more in the planning and implementation of disaster protocols. For instance, after attending a humanitarian standards course organised by local NGOs, a radio station in Uganda set up a radio programme called ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ to provide space to refugees and the local government to discuss issues and share information.

The new collaborations also required more consortia management skills than local and national NGOs in the network had. District-level NGO leaders dealt with grievances and competition, with some feeling they were better than others and some preferring to work alone. Working in complementarity rather than competing is difficult to achieve for any organisation (international organisations still have a lot to learn in this regard). Local NGOs recognised both the value and the complexity of the approach and worked together with Oxfam to establish better governance policies for their networks and consortia. Oxfam also saw that local-to-local networks required gradual interpersonal growth and trust building, which can only develop through time.

Agreeing as a collective on the priorities for strengthening local structures was eye-opening for some and irrelevant for others. For some, the amount of time and commitment that this process required was too great for the return they were getting. Used to working on projects with predefined activities and financial allocations, they saw no need to change this. This was not just the case for local organisations; partners lamented that UN agencies and other INGOs present in their areas did not participate in this process, undermining its impact. For others the exercise provided a unique and new space to reflect on their organisation’s value-add, future identity, who they wanted to be and how to get there. It allowed for longer-term, strategic thinking that considered their role in a broader system of humanitarian aid. This has led to developing organisational strategies, resource mobilisation and positioning through advocacy and joint engagements.

ELNHA’s capacity-strengthening approach was its greatest contribution. It placed local actors at the centre, providing space to define their own capacity development needs and the means to address them. Stronger and more established local actors were able to support the growing, smaller organisations, and by working together they were able to leverage their strengths and mandate. For instance, SORUDA in Uganda put in place operational policies that resulted in a growing number of partnerships and an increase in its funding portfolio, which enabled the organisation to expand geographically from Lamwo District into Agago District. The opportunity to reflect on their organisation’s long-term vision, develop resource plans and choose what niche areas to focus on gave SORUDA greater direction and structure, which made them more competitive in accessing funding. For example, in a consortium with two other organisations (FOKAPAWA and NUWOSO) they co-created and submitted to the UN Trust Fund and USAID-USHA (Uganda Sanitation for Health Activity) a proposal for $140,000 that was approved to implement a humanitarian response in refugee and host communities in Palabak Kal, Lamwo district. SORUDA was also able to host learning exchanges for other actors in Karamoja and Acholi, providing mentorship and coaching, while also sharing lessons in response experience.

Local actors valued the opportunity to access seed funding for self-designed humanitarian response, yet communities felt funding amounts were too small to meet their needs, especially when compared with the scale of programmes delivered by international organisations. Communities had higher expectations and wanted more needs met, which sometimes resulted in strained relationships between local NGOs and the communities they served, despite ongoing communication between them. Local partners perceive a risk that this unmet expectation will change their relationship with affected communities from one of trust and cooperation to disengagement. Certainly more could have been done by the local actor to better manage community expectations; however, we collectively noted that the provision of small grants has the potential to do more harm than good if not managed appropriately.

Local leadership was further strengthened through establishing, running or joining local, regional, and national platforms. These coordination platforms acted as spaces for information-sharing and dialogue. More specifically, they became spaces for local actors to amplify their voices and act as key players in the humanitarian ecosystem. It was through these platforms that local actors formed consortia to increase the scale and reach of their response programmes, consequently allowing them to better compete for funding. For example, a consortium of local actors from a district in Bangladesh successfully competed against international organisations in obtaining funding from the Start Fund. While some local actors joined district and national networks with the aim of accessing funding, most stayed for experiential learning and collaborative opportunities.

Many local NGOs in ELNHA, like CEFORD, GUS, and SORUDA, gained experience not just in managing and leading a consortium, but as co-applicants on funding proposals in support of other local NGOs. GUS reported having developed a range of skills through identifying resource persons, chairing platforms and coordinating initiatives from a range of actors. Local-to-local consortia allowed agencies to leverage and pool staff for timely deployment and provided an opportunity to administer and coordinate joint response work. It strengthened internal planning, particularly resource allocation and use, in a transparent and accountable manner between consortium members. These strengthened collaborative relationships meant response work and troubleshooting were resolved quickly.

ELNHA advocated for the participation and inclusion of local actors in humanitarian spaces where decisions are made, and at different levels – from district coordination and cluster meetings to the steering groups of Start Fund Bangladesh or the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) Steering Committee in Uganda. For many local NGOs, regular participation, particularly at national or international levels, has been challenged by language barriers, limited technical knowledge, few available staff, distance and the tendency of representatives from larger organisations to dominate the space. Indeed, many local actors were not aware of the importance of being part of these coordination platforms. ELNHA’s early work to support LNNGO access to different levels of coordination unfortunately failed to factor in the gap between local-level coordination spaces and national ones, where most key decisions are made. While Oxfam and district-level NGO leaders supported some strengthening of the communications and connections between local NGO subnational networks and representatives with their national counterparts, this area still needs more investment and attention.

For local NGOs like GUS, visibility and participation in decision-making spaces led to more opportunities for partnership and collaboration outside their district. Beyond this, local NGOs noted that regular participation had knock-on benefits of strengthening staff capacity and building confidence. Those larger, more dominant organisations became allies for joint advocacy and requests. Inclusive participation in meetings accelerated during the Covid-19 response, as virtual meetings eliminated issues of distance and reduced staff availability barriers.

What do INGOs and local actors need to do to reinforce local humanitarian structures going forward?

Some key shifts are needed in the norms and behaviours of humanitarian actors.  Learning from ELNHA reconfirmed the following:

  • Humanitarian actors need to work in line with the existing local humanitarian policies and actors.
  • Success needs to be measured by long-term strategic partnerships, collective outcomes and mutual cooperation, although it remains difficult to delink these from financial incentives.
  • It must be recognised that the next era of humanitarian action requires international investments in networked responses – strengthening collaboration between a movement of diverse actors at international and, most importantly, local levels, as well as governments, the private sector and civil society.

For local actors, many of whom have emerged and been shaped by the same traditional humanitarian system that is guiding the incentives and culture of INGOs, the ELNHA programme has provided a framework to test a different path. Key elements that have resonated with local actors are:

  • There is a need to work cohesively and with the full extent of capacity, skills and resources available from different actors, whether international, government, private, media or other NGOs. This requires openness to collaborate rather than compete, and investment in building relationships of trust with other actors in the system.
  • Become advocates, collectively, for the rights and agency of local actors, ensuring that engagements are mutually beneficial and are supportive of longer-term outcomes for people in need.
  • Responding to people’s needs must dictate the operations and approaches used, recognising their role and agency in emergencies.

Juliet Eyokia is a Policy Dialogue Expert at Community Empowerment for Rural Development (CEFORD) in West Nile, Uganda.  Peter Ochepa is the Executive Director of SORUDA (formerly Soroti Rural Development Agency), located in the Eastern Region of Uganda.   Md. Abdul Latif is the Executive Director of Garib Unnayan Sangstha (GUS), a local NGO from Kurigram, Bangladesh. Petra Righetti is the ELNHA Global Programme Manager at Oxfam Novib in The Netherlands.

All four agencies were closely engaged in the design and implementation of the ELNHA.