Politics of Poverty

COVID, colonialism, and a call to shift power

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“When it comes to humanitarian response, who sits at the decision-making tables? People who are not affected by the crises.” -- Eyokia Donna Juliet, shown here discussing hygienic practices with a refugee from South Sudan. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

When the COVID-19 crisis began last year, many expats ran back to their home countries, leaving local aid providers taking all the risks at the front lines. Despite this, the voices of local actors are still not afforded enough respect.

The George Floyd murder and its aftermath—a worldwide reckoning around racism—has helped bring the issue of decolonizing aid to the forefront. There is growing awareness that countries on the receiving end of aid have all too often found themselves also on the receiving end of patronizing attitudes and policies, to the detriment of people who are suffering through humanitarian disasters. Put another way, people from countries that once ruled the world are reluctant to share power and resources with the rest of us, and that interferes with the ability of local front-liners like my organization to handle humanitarian emergencies with the speed and skill we’re capable of. We’ve known this for a long time; now, thanks to the Movement for Black Lives, we can tell it like it is, and there are signs that people are ready to listen.

The question is, how long will it take for awareness to translate into new policies? Five years before calls for racial justice took center stage, the global humanitarian community appeared to endorse a shift in power by committing to localization—to giving local actors our due in terms of funding and influence. (I use the term “local” to mean “local and national,” or “not international.”) At the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, many organizations, UN agencies, governments, and funders made commitments to honoring and promoting local humanitarian leadership (LHL) through the Grand Bargain and Charter for Change.

But here it is 2021, and organizations like my own—Community Empowerment for Rural Development, or CEFORD—find ourselves fighting the same old fights.

  • Power imbalances between local and international humanitarian actors remain huge.
  • Even though organizations like ours understand the local context best, we do not sit at the tables where big decisions are made.
  • The grants we receive do not adequately fund our overhead expenses.
  • Short-term funding means that often by the time we have trained up new staff, we have to let them go.
  • International organizations lure away our staff with higher salaries than we can afford.
  • While we do most of the work on the ground, when it comes to reporting out, our INGO partners sometimes leave us out of the picture.
  • When funds from international actors are slow to reach us in emergencies, we have to make impossible choices: delay responding or spend money we don’t have.

There are new fights, as well. Some international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are using the justification of “localization” to establish national organizations that then compete for funds with less powerful NGOs. This undermines rather than promotes LHL. And some, again under the guise of localization, are forming consortia with local NGOs that give the international groups access to funding that wouldn’t be available to them without local partners—but sometimes they then dominate that space and claim more than their share of the money.

Some donors have been unwilling to be flexible in their expectations and deadlines, despite the pandemic, which has forced local groups to take unnecessary risks. For people working safely from home, the health risks may seem abstract, but for those of us who are out in the communities—unable to get vaccinated and without access to adequate medical care—they couldn’t be more real: we are watching our peers and colleagues die, and wondering if we’ll be next.

What does the status quo mean to us on a day-to-day basis? Because most donors only want to fund project expenses, we are understaffed. The pay we offer is low, and our benefits are poor; for example, our medical insurance doesn’t cover our families. So, attracting and retaining qualified staff is a constant challenge—especially when INGOs are willing to hire people out from under us. As for equipment, we can’t afford laptops for everyone, so some staff have to share. And we can’t afford to own all the vehicles we need to do our work. These limitations hold us back.

But there have definitely been some improvements in the past five years. Wide acceptance of the principle of LHL means that international actors are seeking out local voices and perspectives more than they used to. Local actors are more likely now to be visible and credited in publications and websites of our international partners. International funders are more alert to the need for the participation and leadership of local organizations, and increasingly INGO partners are passing funding opportunities on to us. And continuous work with our INGO partners on creating more equitable relationships is bearing fruit.

In the past year, the pandemic has forced international actors to cede some power and resources to local actors: many international staffers returned home, and that had consequences. And the need for remote communications has enabled wider participation in important decision-making meetings.

Let’s hope this forward momentum continues.

But we can’t afford to wait around. In Uganda, we need to consider how to mobilize resources within the country to reduce our dependence on external sources that are unable to provide what’s needed when it’s needed. CEFORD will likely put new attention on fundraising from the Ugandan private sector and individuals, and—though for now we lack the necessary capital—we are exploring the idea of creating student hostels and training and conference facilities to generate income. We haven’t given up on our international partners, but we can’t count on all of them to move firmly and quickly in the right direction.

Honoring, strengthening, and funding LHL offers a path out of the wilderness of racism and colonialism in the aid sector. In the pandemic—the biggest humanitarian crisis in modern history—most of the response has fallen on the willing shoulders of local organizations. It’s time for international actors to live up to their commitments by acknowledging our contributions and leadership, and by loosening their grip on the reins of power.

Oxfam is committed to promoting local humanitarian leadership around the world. It is an active signatory to the Grand Bargain and Charter for Change—global initiatives to support a transition to a more locally led humanitarian system—and it has supported multi-year leadership programs like ELNHA in Uganda and Bangladesh, in which partner organizations have been able to map out and implement capacity-strengthening plans, create networks of local humanitarian actors, and gain access to emergency-response funds. (CEFORD was a leading partner in the ELNHA project.) Read more about Oxfam’s work on local humanitarian leadership.

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