What's stopping localization in the humanitarian sector?

The Norwegian Refugee Council works with local NGOs to help refugees access public services and assistance in Uganda. Photo by: Mathias Eick / EU / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the Grand Bargain — an agreement between some of the largest donors and humanitarian organizations to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action. Support of localized humanitarian responses was among the commitments made — signatories had agreed to direct 25% of international humanitarian assistance to local and national actors by 2020.

A year on from the deadline, this target is yet to be achieved according to the latest data published in the “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020,” “absolute volumes [of humanitarian assistance funding] sent directly to local and national actors also dropped significantly in 2019, down 30% from 2016 when the Grand Bargain target was set.”

COVID-19’s impact may have helped this number grow due to necessity rather than will — but the increase in funding does not mean that local leaders are in charge of the responses.

“In this sector, we are very good at talking, but we are bad at making change,” Degan Ali, executive director at Adeso, said at the opening of the 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference, where progress on localizing humanitarian responses was a focal point of conversation.

Leadership, in particular, she said, was an area that needed greater support to a localized approach, enabling local communities to have a greater say in what responses will support their needs.

In this space, change is slower, but evidence to understand the barriers within international organizations has been growing. Culture and perceptions that existing humanitarian experience is needed create the biggest challenge to localizing and empowering humanitarian leadership.

“Generally speaking, international humanitarian organizations are still slow to nationalize roles, in particular for senior positions.”

— Rory Downham, director of learning and development, Bioforce

An unlevel playing field

Within international humanitarian organizations and the U.N. system, how staff is recruited, trained, rewarded, and supported continues to disadvantage local actors and leadership. Gemma Houldey, an independent adviser on well-being in the aid sector, explained at the conference that even well-being strategies are dominated by the perspective of the global north.

Consideration of spirituality and well-being approaches from the global south were not often considered in policies. Transitioning policies — including localization — into practice was also a challenge as they did not deal effectively with people’s day-to-day behavior — which can be in opposition to what is written on paper.

“That’s the part we are missing in the sector,” Houldey said.

Leadership and hierarchy was a particular area in need of a re-think to both more diverse viewpoints, as well as to transition international organizations to an approach that empowers local leadership. “Everyone is capable of being a leader, but not all have a voice,” she said.

What stands in the way is perceptions that experience in the humanitarian sector matters — with human resources practices disadvantaging new and local actors. According to Rory Downham, director of learning and development at Bioforce, this made the actions of humanitarian organizations inconsistent with the localization agenda.

“HR practices should be as local as possible and international as necessary,” he said.

The State of Humanitarian Professions, a study carried out by Bioforce in 2019 and 2020, identified the barriers to local leaders, found that HR in the humanitarian sector continues to maintain a division between national and international staff. “This means it is difficult for new talent to access positions,” he said.

While Downham did say there is an increasing number of initiatives being directed towards localization of recruitment, he said this was driven less by the localization agenda and more by cost and the need for faster access. “Generally speaking, international humanitarian organizations are still slow to nationalize roles, in particular for senior positions,” he said. Certain functions were still seen as being reserved for international staff.

Diversity in leadership

Research conducted by the Humanitarian Advisory Group on humanitarian leadership within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement showed that diverse backgrounds and experiences led to different responses to the COVID-19 crisis, enabling greater variety in responses. 354 staff responsible for budgets, strategies, and high-level decision-making within the organization were surveyed.

“What we found was that different groups were able to balance in different ways,” said Kate Sutton, director at the Humanitarian Advisory Group. “Leaders from countries that are historically underrepresented in leadership were more likely to prioritize both COVID humanitarian needs and other pre-existing humanitarian needs,” she explained.

“Everyone is capable of being a leader, but not all have a voice.”

— Gemma Houldey, independent adviser on well-being in the aid sector

Professional experience in the sector also influenced similar behavior as they could better balance needs. Leaders identifying with an ethnic or racial minority were also more likely to have personally implemented anonymous feed options for staff, with their personal experiences noting how the necessity of these channels was important in decision making.

For respondents, individual characteristics were what shaped their approaches to leadership challenges during COVID-19. “Who I am has meaning, and changes how I approach situations and decisions,” one respondent said.

Sutton explained that the research “provided clear evidence” about the value of diverse leadership and the importance of inclusion that improved localization at leadership level — but currently the humanitarian sector was “not representative of the community it supported.”

Making a change

Downham said that there were a number of approaches international organizations can make to better support localization — including challenging the existing aversion to risk that shows mistrust of local actors.

“To achieve the power shifts required for localization, organizations need to be more open to piloting different structures and models for managing work and relationships,” he said. These shifts have been required in responding to COVID-19 he said, and the lessons needed to be converted to permanent action.

In recruitment, the competencies required for particular roles needed to take precedence for recruiting positions, and labels such as “national” and “international” must be removed to enable this change. Local expertise also needs to be valued in organizations, and where there is a need for a role to be filled by international staff there needs to be transparency about why and with objectives to train local staff to fill that capacity in the future.

To build the change needed within humanitarian organization to empower local actors, four objectives were identified for participants to create change: consider how they are complicit in injustices of power; redefine what it means to work in solidarity; ban harmful terminology in the sector; and commit to participating rather than waiting for others to lead.

“Intentions are not enough,” Mary Ana McGlasson, director of the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, said. “A reckoning is coming. ... How will you personally contribute?”

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.