Where is the Aid Biz making progress on Localization?

June 30, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

There has been a spate of recent reports on localization, especially in humanitarian response. (Has anyone done a synthesis?) I’ve been browsing through a few – some highlights.

First, an obvious, but important point. ‘Localization’ has always been a feature of emergency response, since long before today’s aid system was dreamt of. Globalization and migration have added new twists: ‘instances of diaspora groups fundraising for flood responses in southern Nepal, networks of churches providing assistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and residents of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-occupied Mosul risking their lives to coordinate aid distribution. Such examples support the long-held assertions of many humanitarians that international assistance likely comprises a minority of the assistance provided in crises and, despite attracting more funding, may not always necessarily provide the most relevant or timely response from the perspective of affected people.’ ODI paper by John Bryant

That was part of a wider ODI research programme, ‘From the Ground Up’, which has just published its final report, concluding:

‘Local humanitarian action is embedded in its own local and national systems and cultures, largely reliant on its own resources and capacities and separate from the international response. It is also undervalued and underutilised.’ (presumably by the aid community, rather than the people helping or being helped).

So in ‘discovering’ localization and trying to encourage it, the aid biz is, not for the first time, merely seeing what was already there and trying to catch up. But I think the effort is still worthwhile – I wasn’t convinced by Stephanie Kimou’s argument on the recent online panel on anti-racism in the aid sector that all talk of localization is ‘bullshit’ (but happy to be put right on that one).

If localization is a worthwhile exercise, how to move from critiques to fixes? Saferworld and Save the Children Sweden make a great contribution on this in their paper, Turning the Tables. Rather than just bemoan the lack of progress and then come up with their own shopping list of fixes (an all-too-common approach in such reports), the researchers plough through lots of existing humanitarian programmes to identify those that offer hope that International NGOs (INGOs), and the wider aid system, can get it right. They then looked at how they managed it and drew some lessons. I love this combination of positive deviance and pattern spotting.

4 Localizing Successes

Here are the four success factors they identified:

Strengthening civil society, not just individual CSOs

The Joint Strategy Team (JST) in Kachin, Myanmar is a joint endeavour of nine Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) with the aim to coordinate humanitarian operations and advocacy work. Following an intense experience of working with large-scale international aid following 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, the members made a conscious decision to join together and offer support on improved crisis response to local civil society as a whole. Oxfam Novib, as well as another organisation called MANGO, helped them to adapt to crisis response by providing institutional and staff capacity building (including human resource and financial management), creating a strategic framework for crisis response, and developing crisis response mechanisms. Now, JST members have “amongst ourselves come up with a plan for a humanitarian study centre. We invite experts and we learn together… We want to become a school, but in the meantime it is a study centre…we have two or three different types of courses, some of them are very basic, another is mid-level manager, and also humanitarian diplomacy and negotiation for senior level.” This strategy, to provide a humanitarian ‘public good’ that all local organisations can benefit from, is one way that INGO-CSOs collaboration can kickstart mutual CSO support and strengthen localised crisis response.

Enabling flexible and adaptive programming

In northern Uganda’s BidiBidi refugee settlement, Caritas Arua and Caritas Uganda were among the first responders working with South Sudanese refugees as they arrived across the border. The organisations supported refugees “with tools and vegetable seeds… so that they were able to start cultivating small kitchen-gardens”. When “there was conflict over the available natural resources – refugees were cutting trees … from the gardens of the host communities” they responded by setting up initiatives to encourage “peaceful co-existence among refugees and host communities in Bidibidi refugee settlement. 140 peace committees were formed”. The organisations were guided in their response by their long history and deep understanding of the refugee and host communities. Their staff acknowledged that much of their ability to respond flexibly stemmed from their access to public donations received through church communities. This enabled them to address priorities, like peacebuilding, that do not fit into humanitarian action as defined by the international humanitarian system.

Supporting CSO security management strategies and tactics

Most of the locally-led CSO-INGO partnership models evolved out of long-term relationships and collaboration underpinned by mutual trust. Many of the partnership models had evolved over a decade, sometimes several decades, and were strategic in character. Even where contracts between CSOs and INGOs involved sub-contracting-style arrangements focused around service delivery, the long-term strategic partnership between CSO and INGO meant CSOs enjoyed a good deal of influence over the work conducted. As a project coordinator from a leading Northern NGO in Uganda explained, “Consortiums are a better arrangement compared to sub-contracting. Nevertheless, sub-contracting is better, for example, where we have stayed with [the INGO] for a longer period of time…because we know one another a little better. Because they listen, they know that we are the ones who are actually scoring the goal on the ground.”

Saferworld’s Localization Spectrum

Transfer of risk and responsible partnering

National aid workers and CSOs often take on a disproportionate level of the security risk involved in operating in conflict-affected areas. CSO partners commented that this risk is not typically discussed or reflected in partnership agreements. Typical unmet security needs are: equipment (safe vehicles, satellite phones, access to secure servers); organisational development on security (security strategies and policies, staff training on mine awareness, psycho-social support to help staff and volunteers manage the stress of their work); and contingency funds to cover everything from relocating staff (or whole offices) that are at risk to supporting families of staff members who are ill, injured, or killed. There is often uncertainty within INGOs about how to cover such costs, linked to ambiguous donor policy on spending for these items. This leads to unequal treatment that erodes trust between national aid workers/CSOs and their international counterparts.

Risk and security is one of the least-developed realms of CSO-INGO partnerships for localisation in conflict-affected areas. Even with innovative collaborative partnerships, most interviewees indicated that they struggle to find ways to fund frontline CSOs’ security costs. However, the research did reveal some interesting ‘work-arounds’. Flexible funding came from Trusts and Foundations or other private channels. These flexible funds were often used in parallel with institutional donor funded initiatives.

Really good stuff – what else should I be reading?

And here’s a link to an earlier ‘why change doesn’t happen’ discussion on localization with Saferworld and Save the Kids, and a podcast with Evans Onyiego, one of their partners, on his work in Northern Kenya.