Unpacking the value of locally led humanitarian action

August 15, 2022

Helen Guyatt

Temporary cooling facility at Allah Abad-Road bus stop Sibi, provided by local NGO Bright Star in response to the June 2021 heatwave

Over the past year, the Start Network has been working to better understand what it means to be locally led. In November 2021, we published an iterative framework that identified 11 elements of change needed to transform the Start Network into a locally led network, supporting local humanitarian action. We defined a locally led humanitarian system as one in which local and national actors are at the centre and are the primary determinants of how resources are invested and how crises are prepared for and responded to. 

During the last 12 months, we have conducted interviews with communities, governments and implementing agencies. In this article we consolidate evidence and learning based on these interviews, which gathered people’s perceptions and lived experiences related to the value and challenges of having local actors lead on decision-making and action within the humanitarian system. We listened to interviewees’ reflections on how being local facilitated relevant and innovative emergency responses.

In two recent evaluations (following assistance for flooding in Pakistan and a cold wave in Guatemala) we asked 64 people about the differences they saw between local non-governmental organisations (LNGOs) and international NGOs (INGOs). The open-ended questions were: What is the major difference between local NGOs and INGOs? What is the added value of LNGOs? What are the risks? It was noteworthy that 13 people stated they were not sure about the exact differences between these NGO types.

The added value of local actors

Bringing together this collective research, we have identified four distinct areas where local actors have an added value. Local actors:

  1. have a better understanding of the local context
  2. are closer and more accessible to communities
  3. are known and trusted by communities
  4. have long-term reliability and accountability.

Local actors have a better understanding of the local context

Knowing how to act to best support people affected by a crisis encompasses not only what assistance is provided but how it is delivered and who needs to be consulted. It is commonly acknowledged amongst humanitarian actors that local actors have a better understanding of the local context, and this was the most frequently reported difference between local actors and INGOs from the perspectives of communities in our two recent studies. Of the 51 respondents (80% of the 64 interviewed) who knew the difference between an LNGO and an INGO, 57% mentioned that the difference or the added value of LNGOs over INGOs was that they understand the local context.

The interview responses make clear the significance of this understanding for the assistance received by communities. Respondents felt that local actors’ knowledge and understanding of their contexts and the factors affecting their lives enabled them to deliver assistance that is more contextually and culturally relevant and more aligned to people’s needs. Respondents also felt that LNGOs are more informed on local dynamics, which meant that they faced fewer barriers to working with the community and the local government. Many stakeholders recognised that local actors are usually better than international actors at coordinating with the government and other local stakeholders so that processes, such as gaining approvals for project activities, run smoother:

Local NGOs, I believe, can function more effectively than international NGOs since they are more knowledgeable. They are aware of what the residents of the area do for a living and what their sources of income are […] they are familiar with the population, its needs and sensitivities. This type of information is not available to INGOs. 

Community member assisted through the Start Network following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

Some international NGOs don’t know our customs well and they come to give us food that we don’t eat, like canned sardines and other things.

Community member assisted through the Start Network following a cold wave in Guatemala

Case study 1: A unique public service made possible by a local actor

In June 2021, Bright Star Development Society Balochistan (BSDSB), also known as Bright Star, provided a unique service to communities during a heatwave in Sibi. It established cooling facilities close to three bus stations spread across the city – a place where people could sit and rest out of the sun, have access to cold clean water for free, and learn about how to protect themselves in extreme heat and how to recognise the signs of heatstroke.

This ‘civic service’ idea arose from the cultural norm of people offering milk or water to the general public during certain religious occasions. BSDSB was permitted to place the facilities in prime spots at the bus station because it worked closely with the local bus administration, traders at the bus station and the local government.

I know they consulted shopkeepers at the bus stand and this [is] how they got this place; otherwise, they would not have given them this spot in such a busy and expensive place. It is important to engage the local community and officials in such initiatives, as they have a better knowledge of the regional dynamics and may help in enhancing the effectiveness of the work done.

Bus driver using the cooling facilities provided by BSDSD during the heatwave in Sibi, Pakistan

The impact of the facilities on the health and well-being of the people using them was well documented, with people also reporting significant changes in their behaviours to avoid heatstroke.

Additionally, BSDSB was able to close the learning loop and incorporate community feedback on how to improve this service into its contingency plans for the coming heatwave season. BSDSB also knew best when to act again, as it was aware of impending heatwaves through its regular contact with the local meteorological office. 

In summary, because of their local knowledge, local actors can offer services that are more aligned to community needs and cultural norms, better coordinated with local government and other stakeholders, and continually adapted and improved based on community feedback.

Local actors are closer and more accessible to communities

Interviews with communitites in Pasni Gwadar following support provided by Bright Star after flooding
Interviews with communitites in Pasni Gwadar following support provided by Bright Star after flooding

In survey responses, a third of people interviewed in the Gwadar region of Pakistan mentioned the benefits of having local NGOs that can be reached quickly when needed within the community. This proximity means that local actors can respond much faster than INGOs in emergency situations. INGOs were seen as being distant and inaccessible. People felt that they did not know enough about INGOs or how to reach them. Local NGOs were seen as a better option because they are physically present and approachable:

One of the biggest benefits of local NGOs is that they exist among the community and can reach and help the community on an immediate basis. They come to help in emergency situations. The local community knows about local NGOs and they can reach out for help or any assistance. While the international NGOs are far away and out of reach of the community. Usually, the community does not have enough knowledge about INGOs and they are out of their access.

Male daily wage earner assisted through Start Network following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

Local actors are known and trusted by communities

In many of our conversations with communities and other key stakeholders, the trust that has been built up between communities and local actors over an extended time period is raised as an important added value that facilitates more effective responses. Communities and local government spoke about how local actors work hard to establish relationships with the communities, understanding their needs and really putting them first in all of their actions. This commitment to focusing on the needs of local communities is often seen as setting local actors apart from INGOs, which often come in and work to their ‘own priorities’.

ADAM [local grassroots organisation] is a well-known organisation in the communities, they have been working with us for […] 12 years or more. They always think of helping us whenever there is an opportunity.

Farmer assisted through Start Network following a cold wave in Guatemala

Communities have a higher trust level with the local NGOs as they employ the local population, and also, they belong to their area.

Community member assisted through Start Network following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

Local actors are more reliable and accountable

Local actors’ presence in communities contributes to them being seen by communities as more reliable and accountable than INGOs in the long term. Communities said that they knew ‘where to find them [LNGOs]’ if they are not happy with the assistance they have received. Being able to find and talk to LNGOs when problems arise often appeared to be more important than having a formal complaints and feedback mechanism in place:

Local NGOs are serving and helping community in hard times as well as in normal times […] they remain present in all times through thick and thin to help the community at short notice.

Fisherman assisted through Start Network following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

Case study 2: The relationship between physical presence and accountability

When undertaking monitoring of emergency responses funded by the Start Network, we often ask whether the person that has been assisted is aware of the formal complaints and feedback mechanism. Most often this is a telephone number that is posted close to a distribution centre or provided on the kits that people receive. During monitoring of the responses to Covid-19 we noticed that although many people were not aware of formal complaints and feedback mechanisms, this was not seen as a problem when the assistance was being provided by a local actor. People stated that they either knew where to find the local actor if they had a complaint or felt they could approach the village elder who would be able to reach them on their behalf. Communities were not asked whether LNGOs are more likely to act on feedback, but because local actors can be tracked down easily by service users, it suggests that LNGOs’ accountability to communities is higher than agencies who come and go and can only be given feedback through hotline numbers:

I was not aware of any feedback mechanisms, but the NGO has an office in […] and I could visit it and provide my feedback to them. I would definitely provide them with information if I wanted to. I could visit the office or I can raise concerns with some of the staff there […] I know that the feedback process is anonymous. If I tell them that my package had something missing, or any official took something out of my packet, there won’t be a problem for me. […] To be honest with you, I never faced any problem, so I never visited the NGO’s office to provide feedback…

Community member assisted through Start Network during Covid-19, Pakistan

Caveats associated with being a local actor

Some of the attributes that give local actors unique added value, such as working and living in the communities they serve, also present caveats. These are compounded by the fact that LNGOs are often small and financially insecure.

When we asked communities what the risks of using local actors were, responses varied depending on the context. In Guatemala most people could identify a risk, and most of the risks identified concerned the possibility that local actors could be influenced politically or not be completely honest about how money is being used (93%). In contrast, more than half of those interviewed in the communities in Pakistan could not think of a risk, and of those who could these varied widely. A small proportion (12%) said that local actors would be more likely to help their friends instead of those in need, but none suggested that local actors may be corrupt, or have dishonest intentions. Similarly, 12% cited local actors’ lack of financial sustainability as a risk (although some thought that this was not a risk but an issue that needs to be addressed).

Community members also raised the point about INGOs having more money, more resources and more economic stability than ‘cash-strapped’ local actors in their responses to other questions around the differences between LNGOs and INGOs:

There are very good local NGOs, but there are others that are looking to make money, so if they receive support, it is almost certain that they will keep most of it.

Community member assisted through Start Network following a cold wave in Guatemala

I think that local NGOs have limited funding available with them. This may be a disadvantage of engaging local NGOs in the assistance provision as the distribution may be impacted due to unavailability of the funding.

Community member assisted through Start Network following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

This financial fragility of LNGOs, which may hamper their ability to provide high-quality and long-term assistance, was also raised by other stakeholders, including local government and other agencies. They stressed the importance of ensuring more funding flows to local actors, facilitated by more equitable and stronger partnerships between local actors and INGOs:

LNGOs are our own people and well aware of local dynamics. INGOs who are most active in terms of delivery assistance […] should collaborate with LNGOs to multiply their efforts.

Government official consulted as part of the Start Network response following flooding in Gwadar, Pakistan

The national ones know the communities better, but to do their job well, they need foreign NGOs. I say they should work together, that’s better.

Community member assisted through Start Network following a cold wave in Guatemala


This survey analysis provides compelling evidence on the added value of local actors. Much of this relates to:

  • their physical presence in the community, which brings with it local knowledge, understanding of community needs and cultural norms, and how to get things done;
  • a sense that these actors are accessible and familiar to the community, and that people know how to reach them when they need them;
  • their permanence and the way they work with communities, which builds trust and greater accountability.

Being local is not without its problems. To manage these it is important that there are checks on how resources have been used and more investment in ensuring that local actors are able to achieve greater financial security and strengthen their organisations. Stronger and more equitable partnerships with diverse stakeholders, including INGOs, could help in supporting local actors as they take up their position at the centre of the humanitarian system.


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