Report: Aid system should open up to local players

A member of Oxfam's team prepares for rapid assessment in eastern Samar in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Calls for more involvement of local and national organizations in humanitarian aid are gaining momentum as the World Humanitarian Summit draws near. Photo by: Jire Carreon / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

Calls for the humanitarian system to involve more local and national organizations are not new — but momentum is growing ahead of the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this month.

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon wants to see more tasks and leadership handed to local actors and the elimination of parallel structures that undermine grassroots efforts. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ press office told Devex the agency is committed to “working toward” directing 20 percent of its funding to local or national partners by 2020, up from 12 percent today. And under Charter4Change, a coalition of 22 international NGOs, signatories will channel 20 percent of their humanitarian funding through local and national organizations by 2018.

Yet large donors point to the practical barriers of opening up, and many aid workers don’t expect to see real reform soon. U.N. figures show that local and national NGOs directly received just 0.2 percent of total humanitarian assistance in 2014.

At fault is the “oligopoly” of self-interested organizations that remain closed off to locally-led relief, according to a report from the London-based Overseas Development Institute published in April. “Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era,” argues that U.N. agencies, the Red Cross movement and the largest international NGOs should share power and resources and work more with organizations outside the formal system, while donors should be more flexible and reduce barriers for collaboration.

Missing opportunities

Advocates of locally led relief say it would revitalize humanitarian aid. The UNSG report argues that it would reduce dependency on foreign aid, prevent longer-running and costly international intervention, and respect people’s dignity. 

Better partnerships between national and international organizations could also make a response more sustainable. Research by five major U.K. NGOs in 2013-14 found that humanitarian aid was “failing to learn” from one crisis to the next, missing opportunities to work effectively with local partners.

Donors and major NGOs hope to agree a “grand bargain” on flexible and transparent aid at the World Humanitarian Summit, including more recognition of the comparative advantages of smaller organizations. But the risk, said Christina Bennett, the ODI report’s lead author, is that the summit does little more than “rearrange the deck chairs.”

Who pays, decides

Changing the current system will be difficult given a “whole set of vested interests,” the U.K. Department for International Development’s permanent secretary, Mark Lowcock, said at the launch of the ODI report.

For DfID, the mantra is “local and national where possible, and international where necessary,” Lowcock said, pointing to increased investment in capacity building. That includes 20 million pounds ($29.4 million) last year for the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, which aims to train more than 100,000 aid workers and volunteers, particularly in crisis-affected areas.

Getting direct funding from DfID to local NGOs remains “really tricky,” said Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain.

The sticking point is accountability. “People paying the bills want to know where the money goes,” said Lowcock, who added that more investment is needed to understand “where money falls out of the system.” Counterterrorist-financing legislation also requires DfID to do extra due diligence in allocating funds, he said.

Lawrence told Devex that the “extraordinary scrutiny” faced by both government and NGOs was fair, but not if it came at the expense of building local partners’ capacity.

New metrics, new methods

While systemic change looks unlikely, some NGOs are taking matters into their own hands. Charter4Change is set to expand and become more rigorous, Lawrence said. For example, international organizations acknowledge that a by-product of building expertise of local NGO staff is that some then apply for jobs with international NGOs; Charter4Change members are considering paying local NGOs a recruitment fee in such cases.

Michael Mosselmans, head of humanitarian program practice, policy and advocacy at Christian Aid, told Devex that momentum was also building around initiatives like Shifting the Power, a program of the Start Network that aims to help 54 national NGOs in five countries gain influence in aid coordination structures.

International NGOs can continue to build on what works for them. For example, Oxfam initially struggled to transfer expertise to a local partner in Pakistan during the 2010 flood response, so they had the local NGO second staff into Oxfam for a period; by 2013, the partner “managed the whole [response],” said Lawrence. Secondment is now “pushed hard” by Oxfam in capable, mainly middle income countries, she said.

The game changers

Such piecemeal attempts may ultimately be overtaken by other developments.

Current efforts “aim to ‘enlarge the tent’ and bring ‘them’ into ‘our’ ways of working,” according to the ODI report, but many organizations are simply “pitching their own tent” elsewhere. New technology is also beginning to shift accountability, from a focus on what donors want to what beneficiaries need.

The pressures on aid groups to deliver have already “changed dramatically,” said Yves Daccord, director-general at the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the ODI report launch. Soon, people “will look to us as service provider, first and foremost.”

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About the author

  • Headshot anna patton

    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.