How can we make sure Covid-driven localization in aid endures after the pandemic?

July 15, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Lots of people are hailing a surge in pandemic-driven ‘localization’ as one of the silver linings of the current grimscape. The argument goes that lockdowns have suspended aid’s standard ‘white men in shorts’ operating model, allowing local organizations to expand into the space, run their own responses, (eg to humanitarian emergencies) and generally take more control of the aid process – something long promised but seldom delivered. This post captures that process in the Pacific islands (some excellent further Pacific research by the Humanitarian Advisory Group here).

But will it last? Is this a localization blip, after which things return to business as usual, or a tipping point to something better? And what could be done now to ensure that it is the latter?

This was the subject of a call today with Josie Pagani, who run’s New Zealand’s Council for International Development. CID and NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are having a conference in a couple of months on the impact of Covid on aid, and Josie wants me to contribute to a discussion on Covid as a ‘critical juncture’. So allow me to pick your collective brains.

The question: how do you take the sparks of change from the pandemic and light a fire that changes the way aid functions long after Covid is history?

What can easily happen in these moments is that everyone assumes the current consensus is permanent, issues ringing declarations of support, moves money and power around a bit, but then in a couple of years other pressures and priorities emerge, and momentum recedes. So if consensus and good intentions are not enough, what might advocates and institutional engineers put in place now to ensure localization endures?

Localisation of aid

Some random ideas:

Laws: laws make ideas permanent and enforceable. Lots of aid purists poured scorn on the UK’s law that enshrined 0.7% of Gross National Income as a minimum for its aid, arguing that quality mattered more than quantity. But it ensured that aid remained a priority even as other events intervened, and when the law was eventually overturned, we saw a plunge in both quantity and quality. So how about laws or other binding commitments to channel X% of aid through local organizations?

Funding Rules: Some bits of NZ aid (especially the big bits) are only open to NZ-based organizations, often with Pacific partners in a subordinate ‘partnership’ relationship. That could be flipped so that bids and applications have to come from a Pacific-based organization, either alone or with a subordinate NZ partner.

Full spectrum localization: it’s not enough to just redirect the money, if recipient organizations are then weighed down with massive ‘due diligence’ reporting requirements by the donors. Power and capacity needs to be redistributed right across the spectrum of aid-related activities.

Reporting requirements and transparency: Even if you stop short of laws, you can institutionalise moments and processes of accountability – e.g. MFAT commits to report once a year on the level of localization of its aid response, and publish the underlying data.

League Tables: how about a league table comparing levels of localization between donors, and creating pressure for a race to the top? (If it already exists, my bad – please send links.)

Creating constituencies and advocates for permanent change: set up bodies to promote localization, or create jobs with the same aim, and you put in place voices that will keep pushing long after the topic has ceased to be fashionable. Councils of Pacific recipients; support for the influential Diaspora voice or other actors in New Zealand; posts at MFAT. Similarly jobs outside the aid sector – how about a department or chair of localization studies at a major university?

No turning back
What might stop it?

Shifting norms: how do you shift behaviours and norms – e.g. make it unthinkable to publish research or organize an event or a panel on aid without scholars/speakers from the region? Create a satirical crowd-sourced event along the lines of the very effective manel site?

In addition, while Localization is in the spotlight, it is worth thinking about the potential blockers of change – my customary formula for unpacking the forces of inertia is to look at the overlapping roles of ideas, interests and institutions. How might these forces start pressing for a return to Business as Usual and how could they be prevented from doing so?

Other suggestions?

July 15, 2021
Duncan Green