Exclusive: Red Cross provides a localization action plan for the Pacific and lessons for global understanding

People in Fiji receive relief supplies such as tarps for shelter and blankets after Cyclone Winston. Photo by: Australian Red Cross

CANBERRA — As the Pacific region enters a period of high watch for natural disasters associated with its summer season, a new report released by the Australian Red Cross provides insights into issues limiting localized humanitarian responses for the region and strategies for building capacity, leadership, and control at the local level.

The report, provided exclusively to Devex prior to wider publication, was developed with the Fiji National University, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and Humanitarian Advisory Group and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to assist the Australian Aid program and local humanitarian organization in implementing recommendations from the “Grand Bargain”.

Although it focuses on the Pacific, the report underscores the importance of regional research on localization and demonstrates how an international framework does not always fit at implementation level.

Understanding the Pacific need

Led by the Fiji National University with a team including practitioners and researchers from Australia and the Pacific, the research focused on four Pacific Island countries — Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Participants were local communities, state actors, civil society organizations, representatives of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, local and national NGOs, and international NGOs operating in the countries.

The research itself was conducted using a range of methods that would enable broad discussions and insights culturally appropriate to participants — including shadowing, visioning, key informant interviews, and focus group discussions.

An early key realization was that even the definition of localization should be reworked to engage local participants.

By defining localization as “a process of recognizing, respecting and strengthening the independence of leadership and decision making by national actors in humanitarian action, in order to better address the needs of affected populations,” the researchers were able to bring the issues facing local groups to the forefront.

“What was important for us was that our partners in the Pacific could identify what localization means to them,” Fiona Tarpey, manager of strategy at Australian Red Cross, explained to Devex. “That’s why it has a different flavor to how localization is defined in other contexts. It is a very strong focus on supporting and aligning with national leadership and decision-making. Whereas it plays out very different in other contexts.”

But the methodology and research process itself is an important lesson for anyone investigating localization, wherever they are in the world, says lead researcher Railala Nakabea-Tavui from the Fiji National University.

“The angle of this localization research and the approach and methodology we used can be adopted in Africa or elsewhere outside the Pacific region,” she explained to Devex. “It is very adaptable; to me it is friendly. We can acquire a lot of information that needs to be filtered from the community level to the policymakers themselves. Using this method, we were able to use a customary form of dialog — and this can be used in other contexts.”

What are the findings?

Discussions of localization are often focused on the flow and distribution of funds in an emergency. But through the research approach used, the report was able to identify that for Pacific stakeholders, this is less of a concern than their ability to control decisions impacting themselves and their communities in an emergency. Capacity development and relationships rank above finance as the important thematic areas for localization in the Pacific, according to the research.

“Capacity development is an issue that all people in humanitarian work would have been involved in,” Tarpey said. “It is something they discuss with partners whereas other issues like long-term legislative change enabling localization doesn’t impact on individuals or beneficiaries as frequently.”

While finance was important, it was more the transparency of decision-making associated with where funds were directed and the ability to have control over its distribution.

But the report further found a gap between the concept of localization for international and national actors in the humanitarian environment. International actors perceive their current approaches to responses as being localized — a perspective not broadly shared at the local and national levels. The Pacific-focused results show that the process of localizing humanitarian responses can only begin when there is an understanding of the current power dynamics and there is a real desire to see these change.

According to the findings, key approaches to provide an appropriate and “fit-for-purpose humanitarian ecosystem in the Pacific” requires six key elements:

     • Localized humanitarian action requires activities to be led by national actors at all levels of society to enable a local ownership of the response.
    • It needs to build on and strengthen local and traditional practices and people.
    • It needs to maximize the use of national and regional capacity before seeking international support.
    • It needs to retain control over how and where international resources are engaged.
    • It requires international actors to take a supporting role in a response.
    • It must be directed by internationally appropriate tools, systems, and processes.

Recommendations for action

The report provides a number of recommendations for players within the humanitarian ecosystem of the Pacific to better enable and support localization.

For NGOs, a key recommendation is to shift capacity established approaches relying on international leadership and capacity to a system that relies on national and regional capacity. And to shift the focus from response to preparedness, enabling a long-term strategic approach responding to key issues identified on the ground.

A “stocktake” of current approaches organizations take to capacity development, human resources, policies, tools, and standards are recommended for NGOs to be fully aware of how local or international their systems are. And assessing the strengths and weaknesses of national and international relationships will determine how much weight is being provided to the role of national responders.

For international donors and governments, it is recommended to invest more into developing policies and standards that help build national and regional processes — including better local leadership at all forums in the humanitarian setting, more visibility of national leaders, and better access of funding to national actors.

And individuals can play an important role, too. Considering how each person acts as an enabler of localization is important to long-term success and sustainability. The report recommends reviewing your role in the national-international relationship and take steps to shift that in favor of national action. Speaking less at forums to enable a louder local voice and advocating for greater localization and less default international approaches are ways individuals can shift the balance to support local responders.

“Because the sector has been talking about localization for a number of years, the recommendations highlight areas we can move on pretty quickly,” Tarpey said. “These are issues around HR practices, finance, and more. But there are also discussions about normative change, which is a long-term approach.”

The next steps

The release of the report today is just the start of action on localization within the Australian Red Cross. Tarpey said immediate action will begin in areas identified in the report’s recommendation to lead in demonstrating effective localization of humanitarian responses for the Pacific region.

“That will manifest in a new design approach and how it impacts on our relationship with donors and partners,” she said. “We’re just at the start of that process.”

There will also be dialog with DFAT around the findings and recommendations, to determine how implementation will impact their joint-relationship in providing humanitarian response and support within the Australian Aid program.

“And we are looking at our partners and conversations with other players in the region,” Tarpey said. “There will be a series of advocacy platforms allowing us to take the research and results to a range of actors.”

Within Fiji, Nakabea-Tavui said there are strategies to create long-term sustainability of localized responses.

“For me now, I will be looking at integration it into our curriculum to build local capacity,” she said. That was one of the recommendations that came from us to incorporate it into the Fiji national curriculum from the primary level right up secondary school and tertiary. It will mean people come out of university and into their employment with an understanding of how to respond to an emergency. It needs to start early but for sustainability reasons, this is also critical — it means we can bank on local capacity.”

And the next stage of research will be monitoring and evaluation.

“Testing localization progress will be the next piece of work for us — what [are] the indicators we can track at the macro level,” Tarpey said. “This hasn’t been defined yet, but within our own design processes internally, we also need to ensure we are embedding localization within our KPIs to help measure impact.”

On the ground, Nakabea-Tavui suggests monitoring and evaluation can be supported through the same research methodology used to identify challenges.

“It is not only the community we engage in dialog with through this process, but also those implementing the programs,” Nakabea-Tavui said. “In the Pacific context, this dialog will be able to help us understand the situation.”

And it will help the community get a strong handle on how recommendations are being implemented to positively influence the localization agenda.

Read more Devex coverage on localization.

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 news.com.au. 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.