Victoria Barrios breaks down what localisation of humanitarian aid means in practice and why it is an important step forward for the international community. 

Localisation has been a hot topic in the humanitarian sector for the past few years. Although there is no globally agreed definition, localisation is broadly, a collective process involving various stakeholders that aims to return local actors, whether civil society organisations or local public institutions, to the centre of the humanitarian system with a greater role in humanitarian response. It can come in several forms including more equitable partnerships between international and local agencies, channelling humanitarian aid to and through local institutions and organisations, and local actors having a more significant position in aid coordination.

Localisation is essentially a shifting of power. It aims to put the power of decision making and the control of resources back into the hands of the locals, those with the most connectedness and proximity. Local actors know the context, speak the language and will be there long after international organisations leave. They are also at greater risk. In 2014, 90% of all humanitarian workers killed were local responders. Yet their crucial role is often ignored by the humanitarian system. Localisation intends to harness this local knowledge and build the capacity of crisis-affected communities to empower and ultimately strengthen them to lead development efforts.

The discussion regarding localisation was fuelled by the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul. The WHS reflected on the changing nature of humanitarian crisis and need. In particular, there was focus on a published Report to the Secretary-General regarding the dramatic gap between the current funding need and the amount the global community actually provides. According to the report, “over the last few years, conflicts and natural disasters have led to fast-growing numbers of people in need and a funding gap for humanitarian action of an estimated US$15 billion.” On top of this, in 2016, only 1.7% of all NGO funding went directly to national and local NGOs. Therefore, there is overwhelming financial need, but the local actors that need it most are not the ones directly receiving the money. At the Summit, there was consensus that the global humanitarian system was built by and for international actors and was not utilising local institutions and actors enough, despite their inarguable importance. As a result, it was decided that humanitarian assistance should be more localised as a more effective and sustainable solution to this problem. It was thus concluded that on a practical level, where possible, there should be more direct funding to local humanitarian providers.

The WHS resulted in many commitments and initiatives towards localisation. Among the agreements signed, most notable was The Great Bargain, which committed some of the biggest donors and aid organisations to, among other things, provide 25 percent of global humanitarian funding to local and national responders by 2020.

The idea of localisation has been met with both criticism and praise. Is localisation too idealistic with no guiding steps to implementation or is it just what the humanitarian system needs right now to truly empower and strengthen local actors? While some humanitarian actors think localisation is a much needed bottom-up approach that is the only way to true positive change, others challenge that certain important aspects of humanitarian assistance are being ignored such as the responsibility of states and certain vulnerable and marginalised groups. In the next part of this trilogy, both the pros and cons of the theory will be explored.


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