Localisation of Aid: Are INGOs Walking The Talk?

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1. Introduction

The Shifting the Power project (StP) is aiming for a more balanced humanitarian system, where the role of local and national humanitarian actors is valued, supported and recognized by international humanitarian agencies, donors and International NGOs. The debate on localisation of humanitarian action has gained momentum in the past two years, following the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, yet its implementation is at an early stage. Many WHS participants debated whether the aid system was broken, the necessity for transformation, improved effectiveness, and the consistent increase in humanitarian needs. The vision and journey of localisation has been repeatedly confirmed as the ‘right direction’, not only because it is considered morally and ethically right but because there is an increasing body of evidence that localisation increases impact and improves effectiveness. As the current humanitarian system and its foundations are routinely challenged to ‘work differently’, a review has been carried out of the current opportunities, challenges and good practice in the relationships between INGOs and local humanitarian actors. The core argument is that INGOs have to improve their partnership practices with local and national NGOs to better recognize and respond to their leadership, as well as to adapt accordingly their advocacy, media or fundraising work.

The research was commissioned by the six international organizations – ActionAid, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Concern, Oxfam and Tearfund, – working together in the Shifting the Power project, supporting 55 of their local and national NGO partners who share the vision and ambition of playing a leading role in decision-making and responding to crises in their countries and regions. This research aims to contribute to an ongoing effort, to build the future of increased localized humanitarian action. It draws on national research projects in the five countries of focus, as well as a global research, and emphasizes the importance of sharing (i.e. distributed and networked) power within the humanitarian system. The report encourages INGOs to localise humanitarian response in a coherent, collective manner, and in a way that is responsive to context, rather than leaving it to individual, ad hoc, approaches that are at the mercy of project or programme funding.

It is only fair to say that the Shifting the Power INGO consortium members face the dilemma of negotiating a balance between being committed to delivering life-saving responses to people in crisis and shifting power for moral, effectiveness and sustainability reasons. The tension between crisis response and longterm change is not unique to INGOs, but common to other humanitarian actors engaged in the localisation debate. Power will always have to be analysed, negotiated or require negotiation – this is a fundamental aspect that should be taken into account when devising localised humanitarian programmes and response.

The review provides the insight that there is not a one size fits all approach for every context or a once and for all time settlement on power shared or shifted, yet the role of local and national humanitarian actors should neither be ignored nor underestimated. Sharing and shifting power should result in a humanitarian system where national and local NGOs reinforce and not replace other bigger actors, and vice versa.

Thanks to their extensive background in humanitarian response, the agencies involved in the project are in a unique position to lead the modelling/ trialling and testing of different approaches that result in the shift of power. The report recommends that the INGOs amplify what is working and consistently produce regular evidence of initiatives, lessons and impact in key areas of collective vision and Key Performance Indicators, donor/funding influence, mutual capacity strengthening initiatives, partnership feedback mechanisms, humanitarian decision making and its impact on communities. There is an urgent need to be more strategically engaged and invest in national and local networks, as they act as a catalyst to raise the profile and influence of front line responders.

A change in mind set and ways of working does not happen overnight, however for power to shift, there needs to be a conscious ‘letting go’ by those that have a tight grip on power, and this requires courage, and considerable adjustment to mind-sets, systems and structures. If International NGOs are serious about shifting power, then they must invest in organizations, networks and movements that they do not control. Individuals and institutions need to move beyond their preoccupation with organizational survival. The reality is that the shifting of power will happen at varying speeds according to the domain and context. INGOs operate in a multi-polar, uncertain world and stable contexts can quickly become fragile. The humanitarian sector will change at its pace, INGOs at theirs, and within INGOs departments and functions change at their own pace too. There will be no neat, linear progression, so INGOs must be prepared to commit adequate resources, recognise the importance of local and national organisations and press on. Localisation is a journey and reaching the destination should go above and beyond current programmes, projects and the implementation of commitments arising from international summits.