Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

From the ground up: It’s about time for local humanitarian action

Larissa Fast, Christina Bennett

Overseas Development Institute



From the ground up is a provocative and searching call to arms for the humanitarian sector. It acknowledges that this sector has long been committed, at least rhetorically, to localization of aid. Yet the report argues that localization itself is a problematic concept, as it positions the international aid system as the centre of aid efforts (when such aid accounts for as little as 1% of all financial flows during humanitarian crises).

Moreover, the report contends that this commitment has not translated into substantive action. One reason is that funders’ focus on numbers ends up sidelining aspects that local communities may value deeply, such as dignity and speed of response. Overall,

“Complying with the letter of ‘localisation’ commitments made by donors and aid organisations does not equate to achieving the spirit of these intentions related to systemic reform, power shifts and, ultimately, more effective humanitarian action. What lies between the letter and the spirit in this case, our research found, are divergent interpretations, competing interests and misaligned incentives.” (page 8)

Authors Fast and Bennett acknowledge that replacing inadequate “localization” with “local” aid will be challenging even at a conceptual level. After all, local does not necessarily mean inclusive – and locally delivered does not necessarily mean locally valued. There are challenging trade-offs to consider: research in Colombia suggests that local aid workers are considered more aware but also more biased, while international workers are considered more ignorant but also less corruptible. “Local” can be especially hard to define in situations of displacement; in Lebanon, for instance, Lebanese staff may be considered local by international funders, but not by the Syrian refugees they work with.

The report stresses the importance of understanding this context. One way to operationalize it could be to place the role of a contextual expert on an equal footing with a technical expert’s. Another could be to scale up what humanitarians have long been beating the drum for: longer-term, preparatory work rather than reactive assistance.

But this involves overturning some long-held assumptions motivating international aid. One key assumption is about capacity:

“understandings and definitions of capacity have been used, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to keep resources in the hands of the most powerful. Consequently, unequal partnerships endure…aid organisations need to rethink the way capacity is defined, assessed, implemented and valued: not in terms of who has it, but in terms of its collective contribution to the response.” (page 13)

From the ground up also references a number of research studies showing that displaced communities value who delivers aid less than how and what it is delivered. One implication is that, while prioritizing the local, international organizations need to focus less on branding and promoting their own work, which can get in the way of maximum responsiveness.

Perceptions of capacity can go hand-in-hand with perceptions of legitimacy. Both are skewed by the status quo, where:

“legitimacy is automatically conferred on organisations that understand and conform to international rules and standards, that operate in English, that are fluent in industry jargon and that assimilate into existing processes. Legitimacy based on physical proximity, cultural affinity, operational readiness or adaptiveness, sustained access to populations and longevity of operations is undermined at best, and discarded at worst.” (page 18)

These reflections give rise to some uncomfortable existential questions for international organizations. It may be insufficient to encourage the empowerment of local NGOs unless international ones see disempowering themselves as an important transformative goal.

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Further reading:

Barbelet, Veronique, Paulin Bishakabalya Kokere, Emmanuel Kandate, Pacifique Makuta Mwambusa, Antoine Mushagalusa Ciza and Sanctus Nkundamwami Namahira (2019), “Local humanitarian action in the Democratic Republic of Congo: capacity and complementarity”, Overseas Development Institute, available at https://www.odi.org/publications/11292-local-humanitarian-action-democra...

CCNF – Cox’s Bazar CSOs-NGOs Forum (2017), “We demand full government control, localization and accountability in Rohingya relief works”, 9 November, available at http://coastbd.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/English-position-paper-for....

Daly, Patrick, Sabin Ninglekhu, Pia Hollenbach, Jennifer Duyne Barenstein and Dori Nguyen (2017), “Situating local stakeholders within national disaster
governance structures: rebuilding urban neighbourhoods following the 2015 Nepal earthquake”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 29, No 2, pages 403–424, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956247817721403.

OpenDemocracy (2020), “An open letter to International NGOs who are looking to ‘localise’ their operations”, 8 March, available at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/an-open-letter-to-intern....

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