Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 9 October 2017. Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar to Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 9 October 2017. Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar to Bangladesh. Photo credit: Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock
When the rubber hits the road: local leadership in the first 100 days of the Rohingya crisis response
by Sally Shevach, Kate Sutton, Josie Flint and Md Nadiruzzaman October 2018

The international community has committed to a humanitarian system that is locally owned and locally led. This means a shift of power, resources and decision-making to local and national responders in humanitarian action. But how is this manifested during a humanitarian response of the scale and complexity of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh? This rapid real-time analysis considers how the global localisation agenda has influenced the current operational response. It explores how localisation has affected key areas of leadership, funding, surge, partnerships, coordination and complementarity. It also considers emerging localisation practices that could be scaled up in future responses. The analysis is intended to stimulate discussion and inform practice, and prompt questions about what happens when localisation moves from theory to practice.

On the surface, not much has changed in the way the humanitarian response has unfolded in Bangladesh. Funding has still flowed largely to international actors; international surge staff, many with no experience of the context, arrived in their hundreds; and coordination continued to be dominated by international actors. Below the surface, however, shifts are under way. The government of Bangladesh has taken a strong leadership role that has challenged international systems. National and local NGOs are playing a key role in the response, and some international actors are partnering with national actors more intentionally. Is this too little or too much of a shift? Does it represent the transformation envisaged at the World Humanitarian Summit, and a positive step towards fundamental change? Or has it taken us backwards, with weakened relationships leaving the localisation debate more polarised than ever?

‘How is the humanitarian imperative to save lives balanced with a focus on ensuring the response is locally led?’

This article is based on consultations with key national and international actors operating in-country. The research was co-produced with a national partner, which undertook all the field-based interviews and co-authored the paper. It was a high level rapid analysis designed to provide insight into emerging themes and issues from the perspective of operational actors.

Crisis overview


National leadership in the first 100 days of the response was evident in the restrictions placed on international NGOs (INGOs) entering the country; in the establishment of a registration system that limited the operational role of INGOs; and in the decision to recognise the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the international lead agency for refugee response coordination with the government. This decision was at odds with the default international designation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as lead for refugee contexts, and raised concerns about whether UNHCR would be able to ‘exercise in full its accountability for protection of refugees and contribute fully its capacity and expertise’.+Tania Karas, ‘UN Bid to Improve Migrant Refugee Response Flounders as Political Will Evaporates’, IRIN, 30 November 2011 ( For an international system of pre-designated lead agencies and assumed roles for INGOs, this is uncharted and challenging territory.

At the local level, civil society organisations had little scope to take on leadership roles, particularly as international funding for the response increased. Local responders noted that, in the early stages, decision-making and leadership of relief operations shifted from local NGOs and communities to UN bodies and international organisations. Many stakeholders noted that, three months into the response, local organisations largely played implementation roles, rather than leadership and decision-making roles.

The largest leadership gap, nationally and internationally, has been in creating space for constructive discussion. An honest appraisal is needed of the strengths and weaknesses of different actors and potential complementary roles to deliver the most effective response.


At the 100-day mark, almost half of the total funding for the response, 49%, was allocated to three UN agencies – IOM, UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). The best-funded international NGO was Action Against Hunger, at 7.8% of the total. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society were the only two national organisations to receive funding, at 2.1% and 1.3% respectively. Although this data is incomplete (for instance it does not reflect funding indirectly allocated to national actors), it does not suggest a substantial shift towards meeting the Grand Bargain commitment of 25% of funding allocated as directly as possible to local actors by 2020.

Surge capacity

Several factors indicated a shift in the way the international community uses surge to support local capacities. As far as possible, surge capacity was drawn from regional rather than global responders, and there was some focus on prioritising individuals with contextual knowledge. There were also examples of surge being used to support capacity and enable local partners to engage in the response, for example supporting local staff to lead planning and coordination forums that might otherwise be dominated by international actors. Overall, however, international surge largely sidelined national actors. Respondents noted problems around short-term deployments, weak handovers and the need for local actors to expend time and resources to bring new international staff up to speed at each rotation. Questions were raised about the costs involved with such a large international presence, as well as the compounding effect of short deployments on cultural and language barriers.


There were more partnerships between national and international actors in the Bangladesh crisis than in most previous responses. The effectiveness of these partnerships, however, was undermined by their short-term and contractual nature. National actors essentially became implementing rather than equal partners in leadership and decision-making. Several factors contributed to this. The registration system instituted at the national level limited the operational role of new INGOs, requiring them to partner with local organisations. The result was that a large number of INGOs partnered with a very small number of national and local organisations. Without partnership approaches and support to manage this rapid scale-up, local and national organisations were stretched to capacity. The risk that local actors are overwhelmed by having to manage multiple contracts and meet international demands needs to be managed and addressed jointly, with the collective goal of effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.


Several important steps were taken at the outset of the crisis to ensure local representation in coordination structures. The UN Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) recommended that NGO co-leads be based in Bangladesh, and include local, national and international NGOs. The establishment of networks and coalitions for local organisations was also important in increasing the presence and representation of local organisations in humanitarian response structures. NGO networks such as the NGO Coordination and Support Cell and the Cox’s Bazar Civil Society Network sought to bridge information gaps and provide a common information point for NGOs engaging in wider coordination structures.

In practice, most coordination structures were dominated by international actors. For example, while the Food Security, Education and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sectors had NGO co-leads, Food Security was the only sector co-led by a national NGO. Overall, there was a general perception that the level of national representation in humanitarian coordination mechanisms led by the international community was low.


Despite the good intentions of international actors about complementing and supporting local NGO leaders in frontline service delivery, the small number of local and national NGOs with adequate capacity compromised the quality of the response. At the same time, international actors lacked the information and access they needed to comprehensively fill gaps in the front-line response. Mapping of the complementary strengths of international and national organisations is required to facilitate an effective response. There also needs to be constructive dialogue on who is best placed to deliver what, and when. The current lack of comprehensive mapping and limited understanding of the capacity of local NGOs and INGOs to deliver programming is a serious problem.

‘We need to work collectively to support national entities in a strategic way that will truly support a way forward to increased localisation.’

Locally owned and locally led — a way forward

Whether global commitments to a more locally owned and led humanitarian system are providing the best outcomes for displaced Rohingya is unclear. The end-goal of humanitarian assistance is to provide lifesaving services, based on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Who is best placed to provide humanitarian assistance should not be determined by whether an organisation is ‘local’ or ‘international’, but rather by who can best meet needs as expressed by the affected population. In this response, actors along the spectrum of national to international are required; identifying the best way each can contribute and then working out how they can support each other is vital.

An initial look at what is likely to be a long-lasting crisis suggests that the key to a more localised response during rapid-onset emergencies is preparedness and partnership. For localisation to be effective, institutional capacity-building and established partnerships must be in place before the onset of a crisis. We also need to think through more creative approaches to capacity-building based on a process of learning between international and local actors. Localisation cannot be imposed, but national systems and response capacities and international commitments should be strengthened to enable it.

How can humanitarian actors better support localisation?

Humanitarian actors have committed to humanitarian action that is ‘as local as possible and as international as necessary’.+See Meeting this commitment requires agreement on how to measure what is possible, using metrics for capacity and capability and for determining when and how international actors become necessary. In this response, these metrics were not available. International actors largely defaulted to established humanitarian systems and behaviours. Some considered this necessary in the context of overburdened local and national actors; others defaulted to familiar ways of working in the absence of operational clarity for localised approaches. The international community needs to grapple with some big questions. How can it respond in a way that supports local capacities and partnerships, not overwhelm them? How can it balance respect for local leadership with international humanitarian principles and standards and accountability to affected populations?

National actors also have an important part to play. The true potential of localisation can only be realised if there is an accurate picture of the capacities and capabilities of national actors. In this response, the limits to national and local capacities are not clearly articulated, perhaps reflecting local and national organisations’ unease about requesting support or defining their strengths alongside their weaknesses. All humanitarian actors have a responsibility to support an open and respectful conversation that makes the analysis of what is possible locally a reality.

Sally Shevach is an Executive at Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG). Kate Sutton is Humanitarian Advisory Group’s co-founder and Director. Josie Flint is a Leader at Humanitarian Advisory Group and heads the localisation research programme. Md Nadiruzzaman is an Assistant Professor at the Independent University, Bangladesh, and consults for NIRAPAD Bangladesh.

HAG was founded in 2012 to raise the profile of humanitarian action in Asia and the Pacific. Set up as a social enterprise, it provides a space for thinking, research, technical advice and training in humanitarian practice. This research was conducted as a part of the Humanitarian Horizons programme, a three-year research initiative on humanitarian action in Asian and Pacific contexts. It is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.