Before young children in Guinea started contracting Ebola, few people in the wider world had given much thought to basic health care in rural West Africa. Before the worst outbreak of the highly contagious hemorrhagic fever, it would have been very difficult to raise funds to train local health workers to detect its symptoms and know how to prevent its spread.
It has now become evident that even the most basic local preparation and access to accurate information could have limited the ferocious spread of the virus.
Ordinary people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have responded to the crisis with humanity and devotion, often unaware of the fatal consequences of caring for the sick. They could have been better prepared.
Far too much well-intentioned humanitarian aid is reactive. Money is raised and distributed in response to gruesome or pathetic images in the media, rather than as a result of well thought-out planning that seeks to change or redress a situation. Far too often, in the name of speed and efficiency, local aid groups familiar with the problems and the terrain are ignored or passed over in favor of international organizations. By constantly bypassing local actors, western donors and international organizations are missing out on an opportunity to build the capacity of these local actors to lead future responses.
NGOs as aid 'vehicles'
Last week, representatives from government, civil society and disaster-affected communities in eastern and southern Africa met in preparation for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. They concluded that local nongovernmental organizations are best-positioned to serve as vehicles to better meet both humanitarian and development needs. The summit is an opportunity to rectify the current western-dominated humanitarian aid model.
According to the latest Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, between 2009 and 2011 local and national NGOs received only 0.2 percent of total global humanitarian aid. Without direct funding, it is nearly impossible for these NGOs to invest in bolstering operations and strategy, and without this capacity it is nearly impossible to compete with western NGOs. The result? A system that fails to empower the actors that are best placed to respond to emergencies.
Local civil society and NGOs must become genuine partners — especially in regions where governments are weak or nonexistent — and not just pipelines and implementers.
An equal voice at the table
In the early 2000s, Adeso, the organization I now lead, was fortunate to have a partner which supported its growth and invested in human resources and financial systems.
Eventually, this partner introduced us to their own donor, the ultimate test of a true partnership. We were then able to begin accessing funds directly from bilateral sources and foundations, allowing us to further build our capacity.
Without this support, Adeso could not have grown from a small grass-roots organization to become a leading regional organization with annual revenues of close to $30 million. Our programs are successful because of our ability to deliver services directly and to hold governments to account.
But organizations like ours seem to be the exception. The reality is that non-Western NGOs rarely have an equal voice at the table, despite the fact that almost all humanitarian response occurs in developing countries.
Local relief and recovery
There are some valid doubts about the capacity of local actors to manage large humanitarian programs or crises.
Incidents of fraud and diversion are often cited as evidence of the risks involved in funding local groups. But recent analyses, including the evaluation of the international response to the 2006 tsunami, contradict these fears. Instead, they highlight the need for a fundamental reorientation of the humanitarian system: from one that supplies aid internationally to one that supports and facilitates local relief and recovery priorities with national and local organizations at the heart of this transformation.
Local civil society and NGOs must become genuine partners, but they must also be careful to not repeat the pitfalls and the prevailing model of Western NGOs, which sees real sustainability or transformational impact taking a back seat to a focus on expanding funding.
Ultimately, local governments are the duty bearers in ensuring that they provide opportunities for their citizens to be lifted out of poverty as well respond to a sudden or chronic shock like a typhoon or earthquake. If a government is not doing this well or not at all, then it is the role of local civil society to perform the task of holding that government accountable. And where we have fragile states (such as Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia) with a weak or nonexistent government, then local civil society should be at the heart of responses to crisis.
The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit provides an opportunity to reflect and act on these issues, but we need to ask the difficult questions if we really want to reform the current system. And this will be challenging when the organizations leading the process are the very ones that need to be willing to take a back seat.
There is still time to make sure the process we have all agreed to embark is fit for purpose, transparent, collaborative and open to change as it professes to and needs to be. At the end of the day, we should all — local NGOs included — be discussing how to work ourselves out of a job.
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