Refugees International Advocates for USAID Local Capacity Development Policy

Refugees International (RI) would like to thank USAID for the opportunity to provide comments for the draft of USAID’s Local Capacity Development (LCD) Policy.

Refugees International has strongly advocated for a significant shift in support for local capacity investment in humanitarian and development response. RI’s own field reporting and advocacy efforts have reflected this imperative, both in the context of emergencies and protracted displacement crises. But while many global commitments have been made to increase local non-governmental organization (NGO) support—from the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit outcomes to individual donor commitments—these pledges remain largely unmet. Refugees International applauds USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s November 4, 2021, announcement of a new commitment for at least 25 percent of USAID’s funding to go to local partners over the next four years. This is not only an important policy shift but a signal to other donors and policymakers to reconfirm earlier commitments for local investment.

As described in official documentation for review during the open comment period of December 8, 2021, through January 31, 2022, the draft policy is an encouraging start towards strengthening both process and “best practice” on local capacity investment. RI was pleased to see language regarding a locally led approach; stronger formalized consultation with partners; expanded capacity building and specialized training; acknowledgment of the need for flexibility in approaches; integration of local capacity development into the program cycle; and the inclusion of marginalized and underrepresented groups.

To strengthen the draft, RI would like to suggest additional expressions of a U.S. government commitment to:

  • support for refugee and IDP-led organizations in capacity building, particularly in places of emergency and protracted displacement—and also recognizing that capacity building includes efforts to promote the voices of the displaced in decisions impacting their well-being and their rights (whether those U.S. government efforts are driven by USAID, the Department of State, or both institutions)
  • more specificity on expected consultation timelines with humanitarian stakeholders on policy implementation progress, perhaps through the proposed “Localization Leadership Committee”
  • and the inclusion of procedural outreach steps to share lessons learned with other relevant U.S. agencies and donors.

Recent RI reporting and analysis supports many of the above comments and suggestions.

In the case of Central America, investing in local capacity is not only welcome, it is essential to ensure successful, sustainable, and long-term progress for humanitarian and development programs in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Reducing corruption, strengthening democracy, and improving development can only be done hand-in-hand with the inclusion and empowerment of civil society organizations. Local organizations are typically best placed to respond to the needs of their communities due to their proximity to the issues that affect those they serve, and their cultural and social knowledge.

Of course, investing in local capacities will have its challenges, such as ensuring that local organizations have the capacity to absorb funds and that USAID can adapt its monitoring and evaluation requirements to better support local organizations. Yet, RI is hopeful that the U.S. government—together with local organizations—can effect change, building off some successes of previous efforts, such as targeting gender-based violence and corruption. We also hope to see an expansion in local capacity development in areas such as climate change resilience, internal displacement, and support for excluded communities like LGBTQ+ people and indigenous and afro-descendants.

To consider another example, in the case of the Syria response, the capacity of Syrian organizations has continued to grow over the past decade. Syrian NGOs have shown tremendous courage and a remarkable agility in the face of emergencies. Often, they were the first responders to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence across the country.

Donors, including the United States, have progressively increased their support to and cooperation with Syrian-led organizations. However, these efforts remain timid. Donors have continued to predominantly contract UN agencies and large INGOs, which in turn have subcontracted Syrian groups. Syrian-led organizations have thus been the primary implementers of programs inside Syria and in neighboring countries, but are repeatedly excluded from decision-making.

Overall, the aid system has failed to capitalize on Syrians’ entrepreneurial and innovative skills. Most donors have adopted a top-bottom approach, setting the agenda, goals, targets, and criteria for success—which do not always align with Syrians’ needs, priorities, and perceptions.

Many Syrian organizations strive to influence donors. Despite some successes, their ability to effect change in the aid process has been limited. To give but one example, the donor-centered classification of different types of aid—including humanitarian, stabilization, rehabilitation, recovery, and reconstruction—has prevented local organizations from being able to plan for more holistic and sustainable solutions. Instead, these organizations have been consumed by more immediate and ad hoc responses, which have further instilled local dependency on dwindling humanitarian funds.

The relationship between donors and local organizations is inherently unequal. But the challenge is how to turn it into a more balanced and effective partnership. USAID should allow for Syrian NGOs to lead the way forward, define their own humanitarian and developmental priorities, and have a voice in any decision-making, while providing the support and expertise they need.

Refugees International thanks USAID for this opportunity to provide our perspective and applauds many of the steps included in the draft. We do note that, as in any significant policy shift, success will only be made with concerted political and diplomatic investment to these commitments. We look forward to monitoring progress.

PHOTO BANNER CAPTION: A Syrian member of a local NGO inserts seeds amid straw at a make-shift cultivation center in the rebel-held town of Douma. Photo Credit: ABDULLAH HAMMAM/AFP via Getty Images.