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As local as possible: Study on localisation of disaster management during pandemic

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Written by: Daniel Boey, Sarah Hussain, Chennan Jin, Alexis R. Moore, Nopasi Niyamabha, Fariha Wasti, and Mark James Wood – Columbia University – School of International and Public Affairs

Localisation is an international process involving the empowerment of local actors in humanitarian assistance. At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, leaders declared that humanitarian action should be “as local as possible, as international as necessary.” This definition highlighted the disparities among international humanitarian actors, UN agencies, international non-governmental organisations and local humanitarian actors in disaster management. Since there is no universal definition, stakeholders debate the different interpretations of localisation. Drawing from the insights of key informants, the following working concept of localisation was used:

Localisation is a process of recognizing, respecting and strengthening the independence of leadership and decision-making of local actors in humanitarian and disaster response. Local actors include national actors, sub-national actors, local authorities, local communities and local civil society organisations.

In order to better understand how localisation is perceived in the region, the AHA Centre collaborated in research with the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University and the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DM) based in Hawaii. This required stakeholder analysis to (i) determine how localisation evolved, particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, (ii) define the role of the AHA Centre in operationalising local efforts and analysing sustainable methodologies and (iii) reflecting on adaptations of the broader Southeast Asian humanitarian system.

The research, through qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys, explored the perspectives of key stakeholders in the humanitarian sector. These informants and respondents included ASEAN Member States and other governmental bodies, donors, international organisations, including the United Nations (UN) and non-UN affiliated, local, national and non-governmental organisations, national societies and other community partners. The surveys and the interviews were conducted between February and March 2021, while the final report was completed in April 2021.

The definition of localisation depends significantly on each organisation’s scope and scale of engagement. Respondents from international organisations deemed national organisations as local, while national organisations deemed actors at the sub-national and community levels as local. They also recognised capacity-building as the most integral dimension of localisation, thus emphasising the importance of empowering local actors through laws, training and knowledge sharing, among other aspects.

Survey respondents cited the AHA Centre as having an essential role in coordination and providing visibility to regional and national actors. Interviewees and respondents expressed the belief that the AHA Centre was helpful in capacity-building, coordination, partnership and in furthering support for these localisation dimensions. Many survey respondents also agreed that regional organisations were essential in furthering local-led responses.

The research also produced several strategic recommendations for ASEAN and the AHA Centre to improve localisation, including:

▸ Creating a leadership programme for civil society organisations (CSOs);
▸ Allocating specific staff for CSO engagement;
▸ Monitoring and evaluating CSO engagement through robust indicators;
▸ Providing visibility platforms for local CSOs;
▸ Using local resources to overcome language barriers; and
▸ Communicating with locals in real time during disasters

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the urgency of localisation to the fore. The pandemic has severely impacted personnel mobility within countries and between countries. Due to the prevailing restrictions, international organisations’ personnel often cannot help affected areas. As such, adaptation plans have been drawn up to address the impact of COVID-19, including operational modality and geographical areas of implementation to alleviate the personnel and logistical restrictions.

Respondents felt that COVID-19 either hampered or accelerated the process of localisation. A respondent from an international organisation mentioned how COVID-19 had put its capacity-building efforts for local actors on hold due to a lack of internet connectivity in certain communities and the inability to train in person. Governments also had to rely on local organisations, instead of external support. Leaders resorted to activating local organisations from the affected regions to prevent the spread of the disease.

In conclusion, the study highlights the complexities of, as well as opportunities for, localisation in the region during the pandemic. There is an increased recognition among the actors of the importance of localisation. Of all the different perspectives that were presented on localisation, the research found that almost all respondents could at least agree on one thing: humanitarian action should be “as locals as possible, as international as necessary.”