Aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash
The state of play: localisation and state leadership of humanitarian action
by Andy Featherstone May 2021

This article examines state leadership and coordination of humanitarian response. It highlights some of the challenges faced by humanitarian agencies that engage with state-led structures in recent crises and makes recommendations about how these can be addressed in the future, and how agencies may seek to identify and mitigate residual risks.

From principle to practice: the localisation of humanitarian leadership

Commitments to ‘localise’ humanitarian action have re-emphasised state leadership of humanitarian response and have been accompanied by efforts to strengthen state capacity to play this role. Despite this, the shift to national leadership has been hindered at times by the international humanitarian system, which has been likened to a ‘members’ club’ with little space for national authorities or NGOs. Responses to crises such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines have added weight to this claim, as UN coordination has duplicated or bypassed national government structures.

Conversely, in contexts where states have asserted their leadership, experiences have been variable, and in some instances there have been challenges in adapting to the changes, which has affected the speed and effectiveness of response. These challenges have been particularly pronounced where authorities have lacked adequate capacity to lead the response, or have adopted positions or policies that have been perceived to hinder or restrict the timely flow of assistance. In such situations, humanitarian agencies have had to tread a fine line between support for and engagement with state structures, balanced against an imperative to ensure that those in greatest need are able to receive the assistance that they require in a timely way.

The importance of context in determining engagement with state-led humanitarian response

Engagement with state-led humanitarian response in situations of armed conflict

The role of the state in situations of armed conflict can be particularly problematic. In such contexts, there is considerable scope for difficult relationships between government and humanitarian agencies. The key concern expressed by humanitarian agencies working in countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan and Myanmar is how to safeguard their neutrality while working with a government that is a party to the conflict. Challenges also frequently exist regarding the manipulation of aid and the implications this has for the impartial delivery of assistance. In such contexts, the provision of assistance is frequently challenged, prompting accusations by one side or the other of being biased or partial. Fear of being accused of partisanship directly affects the willingness of NGOs to cooperate with governmental authorities.

Engagement with state-led humanitarian response in other contexts

The situation is clearer for states that are not in conflict but may be affected by natural hazard-related disasters or refugee influxes. It is in these contexts where there is greater potential for effective state leadership of humanitarian response. In such cases, the international laws that govern humanitarian response may be underpinned by a national disaster law and responses may be coordinated by a national disaster management agency, which can offer an enabling environment for response. It is these contexts that are the focus of this article.

Common challenges in engaging with state-led responses

This paper seeks to draw lessons from state-led responses to natural hazard-related disasters in Nepal and Indonesia and the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh.

  • While in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the government was quick to assert its leadership and had some experience in coordinating response, it lacked a legislative framework (national disaster law) to do so and its capacity was variable.
  • In Bangladesh, the government has significant experience and disaster management capacity. However, in the Rohingya response, its assertiveness has often put it at odds with humanitarian agencies.
  • Indonesia has had a long history of state-managed humanitarian response, which was largely informed by the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After the earthquake that hit Sulawesi in September 2018, it sought to promote a local response that drew on the capacity of local and national NGOs.

While state-led response is the right thing to do, there have been some common challenges.

A lack of clarity about state structures and coordination mechanisms

In the early phases of each of the three responses there was significant confusion over regulatory and process issues, including who could access or join the response. During the Sulawesi response, for example, there was confusion among international humanitarian agencies about how disaster response systems worked at the national, regional and local levels and who had different roles and responsibilities+1. Robillard, S., Howe, K., Rosenstock, K. and Munive, J. (2020) ‘We must be the pioneers’: perspectives on localization in the response to the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake in Indonesia. Boston: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University and Save the Children Denmark.. In Nepal, at the time the earthquake struck, the National Disaster Management Law was yet to be passed and decisions were initially made on an ad-hoc basis and not implemented consistently at local levels, making it complex for aid actors to navigate and ensure the timely provision of assistance.

Bureaucratic and political impediments to humanitarian action

The case studies each offer examples of the challenges that existed for NGO registration, both for international organisations and national responders. In Nepal, the surge of INGOs that accompanied the response was unwelcome by the state and there was justified concern at the number of organisations that sought to work without being properly registered. For those NGOs that did seek to register, however, the process was initially undocumented and as a consequence was lengthy and overly bureaucratic and detracted from the task of saving lives and protecting livelihoods.

In Bangladesh, reports revealed a lack of trust between the government and NGOs. This was partly a consequence of the government’s assertive stance against INGOs, including barring some aid organisations from operating in the camps and dictating what specific aid was allowed in. There was a perception that the government was wary of a heavy INGO presence, particularly one that would encourage permanent settlement of the refugee population and be blind to what it saw as a very real security risk of radicalisation within the camps. These restrictions were considered by some to have contributed to poor camp planning, which limited the prospects for complementarity through an inconsistent understanding of which actors had responsibilities for facilities and services. Delays in approving NGO proposals, the detention of staff and the expulsion of some INGOs were interpreted by some as being purposeful tools deployed by the government to enforce their control.

Accommodating capacity gaps of state-led response and staff

In all three case studies, humanitarian organisations raised concerns about the capacity of the state to lead the response and flagged the risk that assistance would be constrained as government structures were inadequately resourced and became overwhelmed.

In Nepal, the turnover of civil servants was a particular challenge as post-holders would change frequently, often with very little notice. Furthermore, new post-holders would not necessarily come with any knowledge of development or humanitarian practice. Linked to the issue of skills, there were concerns about the variable attitudes of government staff towards humanitarian action and the work of NGOs more generally.

The threat of partiality and corruption

In Nepal, there were persistent claims of partiality and political manipulation of assistance. Vulnerable groups must be involved in decision-making about assistance to ensure it is relevant to the particular needs of different groups, but in some areas the most vulnerable were excluded from local decision-making bodies, which had significant implications for the inclusivity of the earthquake response+2. See for example: Save the Children (2016) Did the humanitarian response to the Nepal Earthquake ensure no one was left behind? A case study on the experience of marginalised groups in humanitarian action. In one of the responses, there were also concerns raised about petty corruption and the need to make ‘facilitation’ payments to government. This had implications for the principled nature of the response, and proved difficult to address, particularly for local NGOs as they were reliant on government officials to authorise project implementation.

The imposition of humanitarian programming modalities

In all three of the case studies, governments required INGOs to work through local partners. While this was broadly welcomed, it also created some very practical problems. In Sulawesi, the government limited the number and role of international actors, refusing them permission to operate unless they had a local partner. International organisations that prioritise working through partners reported some challenges and changes to ways of working related to government regulations. These included identifying new partners and supporting new and existing partners to manage larger volumes of funding than they had historically received. In cases where partnerships did not previously exist, the process of finding new partners hampered the ability to rapidly respond. Even in cases where partnership processes were adapted to expedite timeframes, there were delays and a level of strain placed on local actors to navigate multiple and concurrent partnership requests+3. Dutch Relief Alliance (n.d.) Localisation in action? Operationalising support to local leadership in Sulawesi..

A similar situation occurred in Nepal, where the need for partnership was felt to have negatively impacted on the timeliness of the response; many NGOs reported delays while partner assessments were undertaken prior to establishing agreements. The delays were often exacerbated by unclear government rules and processes.

A reticence to speak out

Where government leads response, there can be reticence to advocate on behalf of affected people. In the case study countries, NGOs balanced their public advocacy against the risk of government reprisals for fears that it may affect their operations or presence in the country. NGO expulsions from countries with more repressive regimes, such as Sudan during the Darfur response in 2009, represent an extreme response. Even in countries with far better governance, there has been a reticence to raise issues of concern, such as poor coordination, gaps in the response or concerns about partiality. One commentary on local leadership in the Rohingya response considered the greatest gap to have been in creating space for constructive discussion between the state and humanitarian agencies on the effectiveness of the response. An independent review of the Sulawesi response questioned whether INGOs had been too accepting of gaps in the overall response that meant that humanitarian principles were not fully applied. It reported an apparent lack of willingness to take up the limitations of the response with the Indonesian government+4. Lawry White, S., Langdon, B. and Hanik, M. (2019) Real time response review of the 2018 Tsunami Appeal Disaster Emergency Committee and Swiss solidarity. Dara and Vine Management Consulting..

Navigating the trust deficit: strategies to strengthen collaboration with the state

So, what should be done to try to close these gaps or, where necessary, to ensure that negative effects on the provision of assistance are mitigated?

The necessity for dialogue

An honest appraisal is needed of the strengths and weaknesses of different actors and potential complementary roles to deliver the most effective response. A global focus on the binary nature of localisation and a polarising discourse – ‘do you go local or save lives?’ – has contributed to mistrust and a combative approach to responding to needs in the Rohingya crisis+5. Humanitarian Advisory Group and NIRAPAD (2017) When the rubber hits the road: local leadership in the first 100 days of the Rohingya response..

The importance of government relationship-building and capacity-strengthening

National governments need to recognise that they must make changes in order to strengthen and increase the comprehensiveness of the disaster management system, and commit to making those changes. Experience from Indonesia has shown that a significant disaster event can be pivotal in helping governments recognise the limitations of existing policy and strengthen national humanitarian response and coordination capacities. UN agencies and NGOs can play an important role in supporting these efforts.

The benefits of a long-term investment in partnership

Investment in strategic humanitarian partnerships is both the right thing to do and a necessary action to take in these contexts. Of greatest importance is for future models of humanitarian delivery through local partners to be accompanied by sustained investments in local NGO organisational capacity to a standard and quality that permits a sustainable shift to a genuine partner-led response+6. Featherstone, A. (2016) Opportunity knocks: realising the potential of partnerships in the Nepal earthquake response. On behalf of ActionAid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Tearfund.. It is also essential that all NGOs strengthen their links to National Disaster Management Agencies in order to boost capacity while advocating on challenges that must be addressed. This may require INGOs to provide space for national civil society to engage government and support the expansion of their operational and advocacy.

The need to maintain bottom lines that are consistent with principles and values

It is essential that humanitarian organisations understand the implications of working in societies with deeply entrenched inequalities and fragile governance systems, particularly in contexts where the state may perpetuate these challenges. Research for this study highlighted that NGO staff possess varying levels of tolerance for perceived deficiencies in state-led response, with a tendency for harder-line application of principled response being voiced at greatest distance from the field. While the fundamental principles of humanitarian action remain an essential part of efforts to respond in crises, in the heat of a response, a dogmatic approach to these leaves little space for negotiation. Above all else, there is a need to discuss principled response, roles and responsibilities and government capacity during a response, but it is equally important to do this outside of a crisis as a core part of preparedness planning.

The importance of politically informed humanitarian programming

Humanitarian agencies generally recognise that, while they are mainly concerned with delivering neutral or impartial emergency assistance to populations in need, they are also important political and economic actors and as such will have an effect on and be affected by government. This underlines the importance of understanding the political context in which NGOs work and of maintaining a power analysis connected to NGO presence and operations. Linked to this analysis and no less important is the need for INGOs, in particular, to continually analyse what their role should be in national humanitarian contexts. There are a number of reasons why agencies find it difficult to develop this sort of analysis, which include a lack of incentives, a dearth of skills, short project cycles, rapid staff turnover and competing priorities. Alongside this is the need to understand the potential that assistance has to exacerbate violent conflict.

Conclusion: the need to shift the dial on NGO‒state engagement

It is important that humanitarian actors recognise the need for government leadership in humanitarian response, as well as their own role in national capacity-strengthening where this is requested. Conversely, it is important for government to recognise the technical skills and capacity that NGOs possess, which can be used to strengthen the timeliness, effectiveness and sustainability of the assistance provided. Where these complementarities exist, there is the greatest possibility of a productive partnership in humanitarian preparedness and response.

Despite an acknowledgement of the need for change in the international humanitarian system, it has been slow in coming. Some actors have questioned whether motivations exist within the international humanitarian system ‘to relinquish their dominant position’+7. Gingerich, T. and Cohen, M. (2015) Turning the humanitarian system on its head, saving lives and livelihoods by strengthening local capacity and shifting leadership to local actors. Oxfam International. and have pointed to a lack of incentives for them to do so. Five years after the Grand Bargain localisation commitments were agreed, progress is becoming more evident, and in each of the case studies, despite the challenges, there was broad support for state-led response. However, there is still some way to go before this localised model is able to deliver effective and complementary assistance that is responsive to those in need. Success will require greater willingness to honestly and robustly assess capacities, access and context to determine responsibilities and resource distribution based on who is best placed to perform certain roles.

Andy Featherstone is an independent consultant.