Is it finally time for the localization agenda to take off?

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A Bangladesh Red Crescent Society volunteer in Bhandarbari, Bangladesh. Photo by: Olaf Neussner / German Red Cross / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — The news of Oxfam laying off 1,450 staff and withdrawing from 18 countries was not news to Degan Ali, executive director at Adeso. For Adeso and other Somali NGOs part of the Nexus network, it was a topic they had been discussing for weeks.

Ali said that while it was terrible to see an ally removed and people losing jobs, it has created an opportunity for civil society leadership, long-promised as part of the localization agenda.

“It does present an opportunity to really reimagine what that new ecosystem looks like and what the new way of working means in the likes of COVID,” she said.

Localization enables communities to be the decision-makers of the programs and services that support their needs — local needs differ dramatically depending on their demographic makeup and geographic location. But experts say there is a possibility that the new ecosystem will not enable this — rather it might shift decision-making to remote international offices, with local staff as the implementers.

With many international NGOs feeling the “financial crunch and pinch,” there is a risk this approach could support economic viability but result in civil society competing for the scraps of cash available.

“[Localization is] a lot of rhetoric — a lot of nice aspirational language, but no real action and substantive systems change.”

— Degan Ali, executive director, Adeso

In Africa, localization failed to meet expectations

At the beginning of her involvement in the localization debate five years ago, Ali said she had high hopes to shift the power in favor of local NGOs. “But the reality is that we haven’t been really seeing any major systemic changes,” she said, speaking at a webinar hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership last month. “Localization really has become almost rhetoric.”

A greater flow of financing direct to local organizations and a power transition away from international bodies were not evident as part of Ali’s work in Kenya and Somalia. “It’s a lot of rhetoric — a lot of nice aspirational language, but no real action and substantive systems change,” she reiterated.

The spread of COVID-19 in Africa has highlighted the fact that localization has not delivered — especially with the evacuation of international actors.

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“There is almost no INGO and U.N. agency presence on the ground,” she said. “Everybody has been evacuated because of duty of care concerns. And national staff have been mostly asked to stay at home.”

In Somalia, this has resulted in civil society being left to do “the heavy lifting in terms of response, information, and analysis on what’s happening.” But these decisions are still not happening where it impacts lives.

“The decision-making has really slowed and responses are delayed. Because while we have the ideas and solutions as civil society, while we have the analytical context and understanding, in terms of decision-making and influencing the response, we are still very much dependent on a U.N.-led, international led-framework that we have to work under.”

Ali said the lack of expatriates and international colleagues on the ground has slowed the process even further.

Ali said that the Europe-focused delivery of development assistance has been “bought lock stock and barrel” by national governments. But demographic differences meant that they were missing key understanding about extreme vulnerabilities that could see COVID-19 spread further — and accelerate health, economic, and food vulnerabilities.

“Poor people in Kenya — primarily those living in the slums — are basically going out to earn every day what they would eat and their kids would eat,” she said. “They’re basically saying COVID may kill us, but we know hunger will kill us.”

Without understanding how issues such as poverty and hunger were affecting people on a daily basis, Ali said she fears that the decisions being made from a distance for countries like Kenya and Somalia will not stop COVID-19’s spread.

“COVID-19 is not actually the enemy — it has just exposed a lot of the challenges.”

— Siale Ilolahia, executive director, Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisation

COVID-19 highlights that localization is not local enough

In the Indo-Pacific region, localization is being progressed by a number of major INGOs — an approach encouraged by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its partnership with the Australian Red Cross to deliver humanitarian services — a partnership that was quietly renewed in November last year for the next five years.

Fiona Tarpey, head of advocacy for international programs with the Australian Red Cross, explained to Devex that the transition has required a huge shift in the way the organization operates.

“We at Australian Red Cross are now a smaller, more agile, and specialized team that provides complimentary assistance — and we no longer have Australian Red Cross staff in the field,” she said.

“This move to localization has required significant change at all levels — for the Australian Red Cross, the Pacific Red Cross National Societies in 14 countries, and in our relationships with partners and with DFAT.”

The model ARC has introduced to support localization, Tarpey explained, involved a strong focus on domestic operational capacity, locally-led scenario planning at the national and regional level, strengthening local and international networks and partnerships, and having preparedness plans in place to enable local partners to respond quickly to disasters.

On the ground, however, gaps are still emerging on how “local” an approach is. Tropical Cyclone Harold combined with COVID-19 in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu showed that the approach still has room for improvement, in enabling communities greater autonomy rather than relying on support from capital cities or international supply chains.

“The closer we get to individual communities having ability to support their own responses the better,” Stephen McDonald, director of stakeholder engagement and partnerships at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, told Devex. “Localization done correctly should enable this.”

The coronavirus response in the Pacific also highlights the work national governments need to do to better support locally led decision-making. Siale Ilolahia, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisation, said that COVID-19 is highlighting how governments have moved away from the needs of communities.

“One of the interesting things that has been coming out in my own observations is that COVID-19 is not actually the enemy — it has just exposed a lot of the challenges,” she said. “[Governments] have shifted our priorities before COVID-19 from our social interest to an economic model — and it is coming to challenge that system that has shifted away from the interest of people.”

Will COVID-19 risk creating a funding race?

McDonald explained that the international system — with a multilateral- and U.N.- focused funding system — is continuing during the pandemic, creating a risk that local decision-makers will continue to be overlooked.

“Money is being given from governments to multilateral institutions and the U.N. system because it is easiest,” McDonald said. “And for money to flow into smaller, local NGOs and CSOs, this requires wider systemic change.”

Ali warned that the loss of funds — causing INGOs to increase fundraising in the Philippines, India, and other middle-income countries — is in competition, rather than partnership, with civil society.

“I think it is an opportunity for us to extend a hand to the INGO community and say that if they are really serious about commitments to localization and shifting the power, this is what real solidarity looks like,” she said. “Invest your resources, and limited resources, and funding in these areas in real partnership. And let us lead on the ground in the responses instead of being competitors.”

To enable true localization within the humanitarian and development space, McDonald said that organizations should be considering how their systems can facilitate remote learning and knowledge sharing, as well as take a step back and enable local leaders to make decisions without unnecessary oversight from international offices — which many are still reluctant to do.

“At the moment, INGOs and multilateral institutions are responding to a crisis,” he said. “It will take at least another three to six months before they consider this business as usual, and are able to really think through how their models need to change to have a truly localized approach.”

Ali is also looking at this time frame to gauge any positive change.

“Two months ago, all of us were saying that maybe COVID presents an opportunity and has really peeled the layers off to demonstrate how inadequate the current system is — which it is,” she said.

“We were hopeful that we would see a change. But unfortunately, I’m not seeing that change right now — maybe in six months I would have more positive news.”

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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.