Victoria Barrios continues her three part series on the localisation of humanitarian aid, this week focusing on the pros and cons of localisation efforts. 

“Localisation” is now a buzzword among humanitarian actors ever since the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). Although the concept is largely accepted in the humanitarian field, some organisations are still hesitant to fully endorse and implement such an approach for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, localisation includes involving and empowering local authorities. This has caused some controversy as governments obviously have different powers and responsibilities than non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and therefore are expected to operate by a different set of standards. The NGO Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of the WHS because of this, stating that, “the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to.” When it is often the government that is the root cause of so much poverty and conflict, ignoring the role they play fails to condemn violations of human rights and could put local agencies at risk. Can local actors safely deliver impartial humanitarian assistance if they are possibly caught up in the political or military conflict?

Donor requirements also present a challenge to shifting power to local actors as most communication with donors is in English and the financial amount that NGOs are expected to contribute to the proposed project is often too high for local agencies. However, if local actors could apply for funding from international donors themselves in their native language and without co-funding requirements, it would drastically reduce aid dependency as they would no longer need to partner with an international NGO that holds the purse-strings and thus makes the relationship fundamentally unequal. Although localisation commits to direct funding for local actors, unless certain donor requirements are changed, the scales will always be imbalanced.

Furthermore, the whole concept of capacity building within localisation is seen as one-sided. Questions of capacity normally refer to the local actor, but what about the international funders? Why is their capacity never questioned? As a local campaigner from the Global South pointed out, “please don’t keep telling us that we need to build capacity; it’s insulting and patronising. It’s an old-fashioned, colonial viewpoint. These organisations are run by people with two PhDs, they are not stupid. Just assume that the capacity is there and fund us properly.”

Despite this criticism, localisation is widely understood as the most sustainable way forward. The specifics of its implementation may be currently under microscopic review, but the larger concept of shifting power to local actors is regarded as a step in the right direction towards lasting positive change. For example, as shown in the Ebola outbreak of 2014, local actors in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were paramount in the response as the main UN/NGO implementing agencies were not present on the front lines of the emergency. Local knowledge, relationships and experience are often devalued. Finding new and creative ways to utilise these attributes is crucial. It is clear the global humanitarian system is in need of transformation, but does localisation work? In the final part of this trilogy, a case study will provide a reflection on the effectiveness of localisation efforts.


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