Battleships instead of canoes: Why localization matters in the Pacific

With the financial support of the European Union, IFRC staff members were able to quickly distribute life-saving relief items to the victims of the Cyclone Gita in Tonga. Photo by: IFRC / EU / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — It is nearing two years since the Grand Bargain was announced at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, committing 22 donors and 31 organizations to a set of reforms for humanitarian financing and emergency response — with localization a critical element on the agenda.

By 2020, goal two of the Grand Bargain aims to achieve “a global, aggregated target of at least 25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible to improve outcomes for affected people and reduce transactional costs.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is among the signatories and one of the most active organizations pushing for localization.

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and we have come a long way in having this on the table,” Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, under secretary general of partnerships at IFRC, told Devex. “The international community is recognizing the importance of local actors and giving them their rightful chair and rightful place at the table.”

At the same time, she said, it’s important that everyone is realistic about the Grand Bargain targets, calling them “aspirational” and unlikely to be reached by 2020.

But understanding what each country needs, in terms of support to build capacity and leadership within their own borders to respond to crises, is the most important goal to achieve by 2020. Leading this important transition is localization research targeted at the Pacific and a new report from IFRC highlighting the overwhelming capacity that already exists within countries.

Insights from ‘Everyone Counts’

Everyone Counts” is a new report that uses data collated from IFRC’s 190 national societies to identify capability and reach.

As of 2016, the societies comprised more than 165,000 local units, 473,000 paid staff, 11.6 million volunteers, and an income and expenditure both in excess of $23 billion.

“We also know in times of emergencies that these numbers — especially volunteers — will fluctuate,” Mahmood explained. “They can go as high up as 17 million or 20 million. But in the normal day-to-day basis, we are finding at least 11.6 million active volunteers.”

Through the societies, more than 170 million people are reached annually — with more than half in Africa.

“They are reached through a range of programs including health care, social inclusion, activities of nonviolence and peace, and other important humanitarian needs,” Mahmood said. Crucially, these programs are run by local organizations.

“The data really points to our national societies actually doing this stuff, as well as being localized in their response and services.”

The impact of the localization research in the Pacific

Data from the national societies considers what localization should look like in the Pacific — and outlines a plan for implementation and action. It is buttressed by recent research from the Australian Red Cross, Fiji National University, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and Humanitarian Advisory Group, and supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“The Australian Red Cross has provided the impetus and inspiration for us to come together and define localization for ourselves, and from there, work out how we become better at what we do and link other actors ... who are also trying to focus on localization,” Mahmood said.

“[T]he Australian case study pointed out ... comments from people — for example, ‘they sent us a battleship when all we needed was a canoe,’”

— Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, under secretary general of partnerships at IFRC

While the localization stream associated with the Grand Bargain is focused on the 25 percent funding target, Mahmood said the Pacific work highlights the need to understand what localization of assistance means and how it changes from region and circumstance.

“One of the good things the Australian case study pointed out was this comments from people — for example, ‘they sent us a battleship when all we needed was a canoe,’” Mahmood said. “That is so typical. And ‘we spend time building our capacity but when disaster hits, they come in and take over.’”

“For us, it’s about strengthening the effectiveness of the humanitarian system by increasing our investment in the leadership of local and national organizations and actors — and not for international actors to take over. The goal of localization must be about making humanitarian aid more timely, more cost effective, more connected with resilience and recovery, and more appropriate to local needs and culture.”

And this, Mahmood said, requires a long-term strategy — particularly for leadership development — beyond the 2020 timeframe.

But the work in the Pacific to support and develop the capability of local responders is already having an impact. DFAT support to Tonga following Tropical Cyclone Gita, largely funded local and national actors in the response and “didn’t really support international action going in,” Mahmood said.

“That is a really important signal from a government,” she continued. “What will really be interesting is the outcomes of the Tonga response, and whether it [has] been the same as a similar cyclone response in the region led by international actors. I think the comparison will be critical so they understand better whether our push on localization has been validated by this instance.”

Achieving localization means shifting mindsets

An important argument for localization, Mahmood said, is the ability to be more responsive to changing circumstances within a country.

“We often forget that we have a one-size-fits-all approach to humanitarian response, which doesn’t work,” she said. “You get the best information and understanding of context when it is from a local actor, and I am talking about local actors — I am also talking about local government and business — we often forget about them.”

Putting an aspiration target on localization, she said, drives donors to try and meet and recognize the importance of local actors.

“But it’s going to be a process and will take time because it is completely about mindset shifts,” Mahmood continued.

And IFRC will play an important role in continuing to advocate and promote the work of local responders, as well as ensure localization becomes something that was tried and forgotten.

“At the end of the day, I find it very annoying, to be quite honest, when large aid organizations claim that they reach x million people with food and cash when in reality it is a national society that is doing the work with no recognition for their contribution,” Mahmood said. She cited Syria as an example — there, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is delivering services, including water to 80 percent of the population, while international players take the credit.

“It is so easy to forget that these are real people who are really suffering themselves — but also putting their lives at risk by helping others.”

According to Mahmood, there also needs to be a changing mindset in understanding the at-risk communities in the local context.

“If we look at the Sustainable Development Goals and its aspirations to leave no one behind, we often have a tendency [to think] that the ones being left behind are women, children, and people with disability,” she said. “Interestingly, in a report we will be launching this year in September titled ‘Leaving No One Behind,’ our survey found that those more likely to be left behind are migrants — a group that we have never thought about deeply in the SDGs.”

But the main work that needs to be done in changing mindsets is maintaining the momentum and dialog on localization — something Mahmood fears can be easily forgotten two years into the Grand Bargain.

“One local organization leader said to me, ‘we know the target of 25 percent may never be met — it is aspirational, but may never be met by many donors,’” she said. “And we do know donors have problems in trying to fund local actors directly. But at least we need to build capacity and build relationships and trust — and I think that is crucial.”

Update, April 27, 2018: This article has been updated with correct release month for ‘Leaving No One Behind’ and clarification of the work of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.