Issue 79 - Article 1

Capacity-strengthening and localisation: perspectives from CAFOD and its local partners

May 25, 2021
Howard Mollett and Laura Donkin
Child support group in Zimbabwe
15 min read

We feel like we are trapped in the eternal school of capacity-strengthening, and nobody tells us what it will take for us to graduate. This seems also linked to control over access to resources and direct relations with the donors

(Fadi Hallisso, Basmeh and Zeitooneh, Lebanon, 2020).

Donors, UN agencies and NGOs that endorsed the Grand Bargain committed to increase efforts on capacity-strengthening as part of wider action on localisation. Yet progress has been slow. While multi-year humanitarian funding has increased somewhat, this has not translated into, or been matched by, increases in support for multi-year local capacity-strengthening. At the same time, long-overdue attention to issues of racism and decolonisation in the humanitarian sector has brought new momentum to debates about power, knowledge and capacity. This article addresses three key elements of that wider conversation:

  • Local leadership of capacity strengthening.
  • Articulating localisation objectives in capacity strengthening.
  • Capacity sharing and exchange.

Local leadership of capacity strengthening

One of the first criticisms local partners raise regarding the capacity-strengthening efforts of many international agencies is their tendency to provide top-down, externally defined training ‘packages’, instead of embracing and modelling leadership by local actors themselves. As one CAFOD partner in Zimbabwe put it: ‘Capacity-strengthening projects should also target the staff of donor organisations and make them aware of the rights of local organisations to negotiate the terms of such programmes. The “Big Brother” mentality still exists amongst staff of donor agencies. As such, it is difficult for local NGOs to act on what should be in principle their right to negotiate with their donor partners as this can be taken as them being a difficult partner’.

These power dynamics permeate discussions about capacity-strengthening. But momentum has been building towards supporting local partner-led capacity-strengthening approaches. One such approach, CAFOD’s humanitarian capacity-strengthening (HCS) model, developed based on consultation and experience with local partners, puts a partner-led change process at its centre. The HCS model reflects each partner’s capacity-strengthening priorities and preferences. Progress is at the partner’s pace, with accompaniment support from CAFOD’s in-country Humanitarian Capacity-strengthening Officers (HCSOs). Grants provide flexible resources for partners to implement and roll out activities internally and to hire local expertise as needed, alongside support for peer exchange between local partners. CAFOD’s role is increasingly that of a broker and/or facilitator. 

Approaches such as this raise questions for international NGOs (INGOs) about their organisational presence, staffing and operating model. CAFOD, for example, has reduced staff numbers at headquarters over the past decade, while maintaining or increasing funding to local partners. However, we have found that, in many contexts, CAFOD still needs staff, albeit at country level, to effectively support this. An independent learning review found that, in some contexts where we did not have HCS capacity on the ground, our ability to act as an effective partner to local partners was constrained.  So, while international agencies need to adapt their approach, this doesn’t automatically mean reducing INGO staff numbers. Rather, it means deploying staff differently.

Articulating localisation objectives in capacity-strengthening

Discussions about capacity-strengthening are sometimes based on assumptions about its contribution to localisation. In fact, these links cannot be assumed and are often not clearly or explicitly articulated in capacity-strengthening initiatives. One recent major review of CAFOD’s HCS programmes identified the following contributions to localisation: Rogers, E. (2020). ‘People at the heart of change: learning and good practice from CAFOD’s Humanitarian Capacity-strengthening programme (2013-2020)’. London: CAFOD (

  • By developing stronger governance and organisational systems, local NGOs (LNGOs) have improved their effectiveness, organisational culture and ability to manage donor funds, rather than being dependent on international intermediary agencies, including CAFOD.
  • LNGOs are better prepared for emergencies, improving the quality, accountability and speed of their emergency response work.
  • LNGOs are better recognised for their abilities by authorities and other humanitarian actors.
  • Stronger links and connections have been established between national and local organisations in the Caritas family.
  • Improved visibility, profile and systems have enabled LNGOs to attract new donor funding.

In reflecting on this experience, three key questions arise.

How does access to funding shape or skew capacity-strengthening?

Direct access to funding for local actors is frequently raised as a top priority for localisation, including by many CAFOD local partners. For example, Caritas Gokwe and Caritas Harare in Zimbabwe have doubled their annual budgets and Caritas Zimbabwe has secured new funding from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). While approaches to capacity-strengthening by INGOs often in practice keep the local partner dependent on the international intermediary for accessing institutional funding, some agencies have developed partnership and capacity-strengthening models where the international agency over time transitions to becoming a technical support ‘sub’ to the local partner, as the latter grows in confidence and ability to manage funds directly.

One potential downside of an over-emphasis on funding – whether direct or indirect – is that this can skew capacity-strengthening efforts. A preoccupation with funding can marginalise local actors that are less focused on acquiring the systems, staff and ways of working required to meet donor due diligence and compliance requirements. This dilemma brings into sharp focus the distinction between ‘localisation’, which centres on the role of international actors and their approach to engaging with or funding local actors, and ‘local leadership of humanitarian action’, which is about support to initiatives, civil society groups and networks rooted in the national and local context.

CAFOD has worked with local partners to co-facilitate a survey of over 60 Caritas national organisations regarding their experience of localisation in the Covid-19 response. Several partners reported accessing funding from institutional donors and UN agencies, and emphasised the importance of multi-year partnerships along the lines of the HCS model. However, several Caritas national organisations also raised concerns about how capacity-strengthening skewed towards access to institutional funding can lead local organisations to compromise on their local character and connection to communities.  Many, although not all, of CAFOD’s partners are faith-based national and local organisations, which raise funds from the faith community in their own contexts, as well as from international faith-based networks, philanthropists and other sources. These donors often provide more flexible funding than traditional institutional donors. Many of CAFOD’s local partners also express a preference for having CAFOD or other INGOs act as funding intermediaries, thereby reducing the local actor’s responsibility for compliance and allowing them to focus on programme delivery and other priorities, including domestic resource mobilisation. Indeed, for some of CAFOD’s partners the ability to mobilise local resources is regarded as more important in enabling local leadership of humanitarian response and community solidarity.

Capacity-strengthening and advocacy, voice and influence

While discussions on localisation often focus on funding, the participation, voice and influence of local actors in decision-making is also of central importance. For CAFOD, staff leading on capacity-strengthening tend to have a background in humanitarian response and organisational development, with varying levels of experience in coordination processes and policy/advocacy work. For this reason, we draw on humanitarian policy capacity to support, accompany and complement their work. In Zimbabwe, this has involved advocacy accompaniment support to local partners, alongside but separate to HCS support. CAFOD also invests time and resources in initiatives led by local partners that do have policy/advocacy experience, including support for south/south exchange and collaboration on humanitarian advocacy, including on localisation issues; linking local partners into policy-making at national to global levels; and supporting global, regional and country-level civil society networks.

Many of CAFOD’s partners do not prioritise support for policy/advocacy competencies, possibly out of frustration with the very slow pace of change on localisation among international agencies. This is contrasted with the more immediate and tangible benefits of investments in internal technical capacities and organisational development.

For faith-based local NGO partners, coordination with national and local faith structures can be as complex as the processes involved in ‘mainstream’ humanitarian coordination. Caritas national organisations spend a substantial amount of time facilitating coordination with and between local Caritas diocesan organisations and other local faith-based structures at the parish level, as well as with national faith institutions and inter-faith processes. Fostering greater understanding among international actors of these processes, and finding ways to bridge these worlds, is one area where the capacity of international actors needs to be built.  

Inter-agency collaboration across capacity strengthening and wider localisation efforts  

CAFOD’s experience also points to the importance of a kind of tipping point being reached in specific contexts, which can be catalysed through inter-agency collaboration and partnerships towards realising links between capacity-strengthening and wider localisation efforts. With the exception of the two Grand Bargain localisation demonstrator country missions to Nigeria and Iraq, donor, UN and NGO discussions on localisation have remained largely confined to headquarters and inter-agency policy spaces. Most national NGOs have been little engaged and are not connected to those global processes. To shift beyond this dynamic and catalyse change in different contexts, beyond the ad-hoc invitations of individual national NGO representatives into global level policy processes, it takes multiple levels of effort on localisation, including joint agency and coalition or consortium approaches at global and country levels, and promoting links between these.

Among the five contexts surveyed in the independent review of CAFOD’s HCS efforts, the highest levels of engagement in localisation advocacy have been in Myanmar and Nigeria. These are contexts that have benefited from several multi-year inter-agency consortium initiatives including the UK-funded Shifting the Power consortium and the Accelerating Localisation Through Partnership programme, as well as collaboration through Charter4Change and country-level, local civil society-led working groups and networks on localisation and related issues, including human rights. In Nigeria, CAFOD staff cited the importance of the Nigeria Joint Response consortium of INGOs in facilitating capacity self-assessments and mentoring for LNGOs, including by other local actors. For individual national NGOs to prioritise localisation in their capacity-strengthening or wider organisational strategies, it therefore helps if there is a wider ‘tipping point’ in their context, giving them confidence that investment will reap tangible benefits. By contrast, in Zimbabwe there has been a minimum level of engagement on localisation by individual agencies and coordination structures, and nothing like the level of investment in collaboration on localisation at an inter-agency or coalition level seen in other contexts. In the absence of that wider momentum, it is unsurprising that CAFOD’s local partners in Zimbabwe have not prioritised localisation in their capacity-strengthening efforts to date.

All of this returns us to the underlying question of underfunding of capacity-strengthening in general, compounded by the lack of support for capacity-strengthening initiatives that foster local leadership. From CAFOD’s perspective, increased support to country-level funding mechanisms and platforms offers arguably the best opportunity to make progress on this. For example, CAFOD played a lead role in the Shifting the Power consortium. A particular focus of our input was the design of the HCS framework and governance structure, which we revised to include a greater emphasis on country-level decision-making involving local partners. This was instrumental in the consortium translating rhetoric on ‘shifting the power’ into more practical actions and approaches. Many of the NGOs involved in the consortium – national and international – have gone on to scale up and document learning in local partner-led approaches to capacity-strengthening. Local NGO forums supported by STP in Bangladesh and Pakistan continue to collaborate on capacity-strengthening and wider localisation efforts. Promising results have been achieved where donors come together to support multi-donor funds at the country level providing multi-year funding for collaborative approaches to capacity-strengthening, as the examples of the HARP-F and LIFT Funds in Myanmar demonstrate. Increased flexibility within existing funding streams to incorporate organisational capacity-strengthening beyond the sector-specific priorities of project funding would also help.

Shifting towards capacity sharing and exchange

Changes in terminology in this area, from ‘capacity building’ to ‘capacity development’ to ‘capacity-strengthening’, reflect a greater recognition of the expertise and agency of local actors. The latest evolution is to use the terms ‘capacity sharing’ and ‘capacity exchange’, which recognise the reciprocal nature of the relationship. The logic is that these terms more strongly reinforce principles of localisation and challenge assumptions about where knowledge and capacity reside.

Even prior to using these terms or wider discussions in the sector on ‘capacity sharing’, this was already a strong feature of CAFOD’s HCS approach, which emphasises organic, independent exchanges between local and national NGOs. CAFOD facilitates mentoring between LNGO staff, joint emergency simulations and training, international peer exchange visits and flexible grants for in-country peer-to-peer activities. Local partners lead on deciding priorities and approaches.

According to the independent review of CAFOD’s HCS work, building stronger links and connections between national and local organisations in the Caritas confederation has gone beyond strengthening individual organisations to strengthening networks. For example, in Zimbabwe local NGO partners supported each other with the induction of their newly formed boards of Directors and the development of an introduction package for new employees. In Nigeria, the Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria (CCFN) facilitated an online write-shop to help other national and local partners develop their HR policies. In Myanmar, one local-level diocesan organisation (KMSS Pathein) supported another in a different part of the country (KMSS Kalay) on establishing and strengthening feedback and complaints handling mechanisms, humanitarian capacity self-assessment and community-led procurement during flood response.

These links have also led to collaboration between partners. In Zimbabwe following Cyclone Idai, Caritas Harare seconded three staff and provided support vehicles to Caritas Mutare. During a flood response in Nigeria, a staff member from Caritas Maiduguri was seconded to Caritas Idah, which had not previously responded to emergencies. Local-to-local peer learning and capacity-sharing has extended beyond Caritas national organisations and their local partners to benefit a wider range of national and local civil society partners. For example, KMSS Myanmar is working with other national and local NGOs to cascade local-to-local capacity-strengthening funded under the country-level LIFT funding mechanism.

Box 1 Promoting localisation through LNGO Focal Points
CAFOD’s PEOPLE project (preparing for emergencies through strengthening organisational procedures, learning and exchange) used a Training of Trainers (ToT) approach enabling Focal Points from 10 local organisations to cascade training within their organisations during the project, and build an internal resource beyond the project. In Myanmar, local partner Focal Points supported over successive rounds of HCS now have a dual role: working both for their own organisation and supporting other Church-linked partners in the country with capacity strengthening activities. Focal Points from KMSS Yangon and KMSS Pathein supported other partners in the development of Emergency Preparedness Plans. Supporting Focal Points to lead organisational strengthening activities builds confidence and develops their leadership and coordination skills, which can benefit future emergency response work.

The term ‘capacity sharing or exchange’ also implies a more equal role between international agencies involved with national partners. The Core Humanitarian Standard acknowledges the importance of learning from local actors, and many international agencies recognise this as integral to a partnership approach. In CAFOD’s experience, some of the most interesting capacity exchange efforts have taken place in the context of learning across longer-term development, resilience and humanitarian efforts. For example, as part of a recent mapping of anticipatory action programming, CAFOD has learned from the experience of local partners in Central America, who support indigenous networks and systems in early warning and early action linked to climate change. CAFOD is following up to share this learning about anticipatory action both internally among CAFOD staff and with other local NGO partners globally. Similar processes have happened on issues relating to gender justice and agroecology in humanitarian crises.

From localisation to local leadership and capacity-strengthening

The potential links between capacity-strengthening and localisation and/or local leadership of humanitarian action are manifold, but they cannot be assumed. Increased support for locally led approaches, more explicitly articulating local leadership and localisation objectives and investing more in capacity sharing and exchange all offer promising ways forward. More transformative change – both with individual organisations and within specific contexts – has come about through inter-agency collaboration and sustained effort at multiple levels. In the experience of CAFOD and its partners, it’s when we link support for the organisational development of individual NGOs to collective efforts on capacity-strengthening and wider shifts in power and resources that more systemic change beyond individual organisations starts to happen. Donors need to incentivise this, and national NGO partners need to call for this collectively, as there is a limit to what any one INGO or UN agency can achieve with its partners alone. As local actors define capacity-strengthening priorities and lead joint efforts, this may increasingly bring to the fore issues including domestic resource mobilisation and volunteerism, which have received less international attention. It may also challenge assumptions about what the priorities are to foster local leadership of crisis response; depending on the extent to which local actors seek recognition and funding from international actors versus their own national and local constituencies. In reflecting critically on the links between capacity-strengthening and localisation, we have also underscored how the very concept and practice of ‘localisation’ itself can be problematic, and skew things towards international priorities. As such, working towards capacity-strengthening in support of local leadership might be a better way forward.

Howard Mollett is Head of Humanitarian Policy at CAFOD. Laura Donkin is a former Emergency Response Officer for Africa at CAFOD.


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