Opinion: 'Accelerate your commitments' during COVID-19 — an open letter to donors

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A COVID-19 rapid test kit in Aguas Claras, Brazil. Photo by: Leopoldo Silva / Agência Senado / CC BY

Editor’s note: This is an open letter from representatives of the Network for Empowered Aid Response, or NEAR, Civicus, and the Global Fund for Community Foundations. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Dear international donors,

COVID-19 is already starting to take hold in the global south. But it doesn’t have to be a crisis that spirals out of control. Our networks are made up of organizations working on the ground, across humanitarian, human rights, and the development community, that are all in situ and already mobilizing and helping people directly in their communities to curb and eventually stop the spread of this deadly virus.

But to help them fulfill their role, we need a rapid and complete overhaul of the way aid is currently delivered. We are therefore writing to urge you as donors — both public and private — to make it your priority to fund them, the first responders, directly and to be mutual partners in any plans that impact them and the communities they serve.

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Many of our partners have long track records not just as implementers, but also as grant-makers to local civil society and grassroots groups, too; they know their local environments, have deep and extensive connections with local groups, and can get money directly and effectively to them. In many instances, they have also been mobilizing local resources and cultures of giving and building local constituencies for their work for some time now. They are there to offer humanitarian, economic, or social assistance on the ground — and to defend human rights and civic freedoms at a time when governments are trying to suppress them.

While these organizations are fully able to move into action, they can also find themselves woefully under-resourced when any emergency happens. COVID-19 brings this reality even more into the spotlight. As many international colleagues have returned to their home communities, they find themselves suddenly left in the vulnerable position of having to respond directly, often without adequate financial support to do so.

Over the past decade and more, there has been a flourishing of local and national funds, foundations, and grant-makers across the global south who offer both more sustainable and more durable solutions.

The reasons for this are myriad and structural, reflecting a development system that has been shaped by flows of money restricted to short-term projects rather than long-term investment in local institutions and by upward accountability to donors rather than to communities themselves. Among the various explanations for the paltry amounts of funding channeled directly to southern organizations has been the persistent perception of “risk,” which assumes a lack of capacity or financial due diligence. Many of us would dispute these perceptions as just that: perceptions, rather than reality.

But this isn’t the time to be disputing what is appropriate and proportional in the delivery of aid and managing risk at the local level. Right now, more than ever, we hope that solidarity and expediency are the dominant factors in decision-making, rather than complex and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Quite simply, there are organizations on the ground that are ready to scale up their responses with agility and speed before the situation becomes worse. With the adequate resources in place, we believe they can do this far better than through expensive layers of external actors, most of whom will now have virtually no presence or relationships in the countries they intend to serve. Furthermore, international support can help to leverage emerging local philanthropic systems, too.

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Four years ago, the World Humanitarian Summit made a commitment to fund local and national efforts directly, and much has been made of the localization agenda. Sadly, very little has changed since then; data shows that less than 1% of total official development assistance goes to local and national organizations in the global south, and if recent donor responses are anything to go by, there is no bucking this trend.

The fact is that over the past decade and more, there has been a flourishing of local and national funds, foundations, and grant-makers across the global south who offer both more sustainable and more durable solutions. They are key leaders in our networks and trailblazers for “the development system we want” — big and small, regional, national, and local — working variously on community development, gender, human rights, and the environment.

It is time to join up global solidarity with swift and effective local action. At the risk of calling the evolving tragedy of a global pandemic an opportunity, we believe that there is a way for you to accelerate your commitments and ensure we have a lasting and stronger local civil society in the global south, both during the COVID-19 emergency response and for many years to come.

Sincerely,

NEAR

Civicus

Global Fund for Community Foundations

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