How to Support Local Actors on the World Stage

There are many challenges confronting the international aid architecture, but one issue currently in the spotlight is the localization of aid. In short, the localization of aid is the trend of giving money directly to local NGOs or to a developing country’s government, rather than giving indirectly through international organizations. The goal is to support local structures, so that there may be real ownership at the local level – beyond national governments and international organizations.

In one of the most significant attempts to reform humanitarian action, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, to be held this May in Istanbul. The summit comes as the result of nearly four years of planning, with extensive consultations in the run-up to the summit involving more than 23,000 people in 153 countries. As noted in the Synthesis Report, “In the global consultations of the WHS one message made itself heard more loudly than all the others: a call for the localization of aid.”

The goal is to support local structures, so that there may be real ownership at the local level – beyond national governments and international organizations.

The focus on local actors can also be seen throughout the recently released Secretary General’s Report on the World Humanitarian Summit, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. The report is at the moment one of the best guides for what we may expect from the summit. It sets out five core responsibilities for action; the latter two are specifically related to local actors.

In Core Responsibility Four the Secretary-General encourages moving from delivering aid to ending need. Specifically he calls for several fundamental shifts, the first of which is, “Reinforce, do not replace, national and local systems.” The report goes on to suggest working “as local as possible, as international as necessary” with the obligation to respect and further strengthen local capacity and leadership, rather than putting in place parallel structures that may undermine it.

Core Responsibility Five asks us to invest in humanity. “Greater investment in people, local actors and national systems must become an urgent priority. In 2014, just 0.2 per cent of international humanitarian funding was provided directly to national and local NGOs.” This dismal figure must change if humanitarians expect to build local capacity.

The debate over the power imbalance between local and international organizations is one that has been going on for decades. International humanitarian actors have understood the need to respect, support, and strengthen the capacities of local and national responding actors – yet operational realities clearly do not reflect this.

The time is ripe for creating solutions to the imbalance of aid.

Naturally, observers have been skeptical of any substantive reform as a result of the summit. One of the biggest complaints about the Secretary-General’s report has been that it is simply too vast, hitting on nearly every single subject but failing to prioritize its recommendations. Concrete proposals are generally lacking, and ultimately there is the question of political will – everything depends on whether governments, NGOs, and the UN itself actually implement reform.

It is also worth mentioning that there are a host of obstacles in the way of the localization of aid. One of which is dealing with national governments, who may be party to the conflict or unable to function effectively. Another is the fact that aid recipients must meet donor reporting and compliance requirements, and the burden of these has increased in recent years. Donors are also concerned about the capacity of local actors to carry out projects, the application of humanitarian principles, and the negative influence of corruption.

Yet in spite of all the skepticism, as well as the many challenges to actually support local actors, the time is ripe for creating solutions to the imbalance of aid. Initiatives such as Charter4Change are working for ways to implement reforms practically. Here at Refugees International our advocates are also highlighting the need for local actors to take a larger role in humanitarian action.

At the end of the day we must ask ourselves: Are local actors included in international structures? How can international organizations build capacity of local actors, and to reinforce, not replace, national and local groups? The answers to those questions will help shape the future of humanitarian action.

Will Evans is currently an intern at Refugees International and a graduate student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. He has spent several years working in public service, first as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Virginia and later as a Peace Corps Volunteer in northern Jordan. 

Top photo: Caseworkers from a local Turkish NGO input documentation of refugees and register them for services on a computer tablet. Sanliurfa, Turkey.