Politics of Poverty

Local humanitarian leadership in Kenya: a conversation about the food-crisis response

Posted by
Oxfam InuruID 356601 Bishara Khalif Gedi
In the wake of heavy floods, Mohammed Turane of Arid Lands Development Focus (ALDEF), an AHN member, registers displaced families for cash distribution. Peter Irungu/Oxfam

Ever since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, there’s been a concerted push to shift from the traditional methods of delivering aid, with responders from wealthy countries parachuting into scenes of disaster and delivering goods and services, to a model in which international actors support from the sidelines while NGOs and governments from disaster-affected countries take the lead. A model that involves shifting power and resources to the countries most affected by humanitarian emergencies. In the following interview with communications officer Elizabeth Stevens, Matthew Cousins, humanitarian director of Oxfam in Kenya, offers his perspective on prioritizing the leadership of Kenyan organizations.

ELIZABETH: Mat, I know you’re hesitant to take center stage in talking about local leadership in Kenya, because it’s the local leaders themselves whose voices we need to listen to. You’re right that they come first; we’ve tried to shine a spotlight on Kenyan organizations [see story about the Pastoralist Girls Initiative and the Ahmed Ibrahim’s foreword to a recent Oxfam annual report] and need to do more of that. But your perspective on the path Oxfam has taken in Kenya could be useful to other INGOs and to Oxfam teams around the world who are trying navigate the transition to a local-leadership approach.

MAT: Okay. Let’s talk.

ELIZABETH: Great. I’d like to start with Kenya’s most severe current emergency: five failed rains in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) region. At the end of 2023, the rains arrived with a vengeance and triggered massive floods. How would you describe the situation for communities in the region at this moment?

MAT: On the positive side, the conditions are moving in the right direction. Thanks to the humanitarian response and the arrival of seasonal rains, the situation has eased a bit for many of the communities that were experiencing a crisis just short of famine. But 1.2 million people are still urgently in need of assistance, and more than half a million children are acutely malnourished. Survivors of the food crisis will take years to recover their livelihoods. Many families depend on livestock to make a living and have lost 100% of their animals. In the last couple of weeks, exceptionally heavy rains have hit Kenya, affecting more than 190,000 people nationwide and displacing more than 150,000. Many of these are from the same communities recovering from drought.

ELIZABETH: Could you introduce readers to the ASALs Humanitarian Network (AHN)?

MAT: AHN is a collective of more than 30 humanitarian and development organizations located in 10 of the 23 ASAL counties. It’s a loose network that first came together to advocate for government accountability–particularly around the government’s responsibility to provide timely humanitarian response and to invest in reducing disaster risks. They also set out to champion local humanitarian leadership (LHL). It was during the current emergency that the group took on the additional role of coordinating humanitarian response projects undertaken by its members. The network monitors the humanitarian situation and directs aid to the counties and communities that need it most. Its members have specialties, such as water and sanitation and cash distribution, but they can also provide each other with technical support and training. If one area is having floods, a group from another area might send engineers and public health staff to give a hand. This means AHN can bring a diversity of programs to a wide swath of the country.

Speaking of diversity, the AHN is incredibly diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion, but many of its member organizations are still predominately led by men. We are supporting local women’s-rights organizations as they help AHN member organizations embed gender-justice principles into their strategies.

ELIZABETH: Why did it make sense to partner with the AHN members rather than undertake a direct Oxfam response?

MAT: AHN members have access to the entire northern region of Kenya. Previously, Oxfam only worked in two counties: Turkana and Wajir. We were more or less stuck there, regardless of where the most urgent needs were. But now our resources can have an impact on ten counties and many more people. Besides that, it’s important to invest in local capacity. We should always be looking for ways to share whatever skills and resources we have with an eye to exiting as soon as we’re no longer needed. Why should Oxfam be delivering aid when a Kenyan organization can do it?

In a situation like the recent floods, it’s hard for Oxfam to track the important details and trends in the ASAL from Nairobi. The situation is very dynamic. And it’s hard to grasp community conflicts—like disputes over unequal distribution of aid—before they come to a boil. Local groups understand the power relationships and political and social nuances and can navigate the communities better than INGOs based in Nairobi or elsewhere.

Bishra Khalif Gedi purchases essentials with cash distributed via mobile phone by a member of the AHN. Mark Wahwai/Oxfam

ELIZABETH: When did the process of shifting power to local actors begin in Kenya, and what have been some of the milestones along the way?

MAT: Oxfam started engaging with some of the member organizations when we closed down our Turkana and Wajir offices in 2018. Local organizations came to us with the idea of investing in a network. We agreed, and began seconding staff to the groups to share skills and provide services. The locust invasion of 2020—the worst in 70 years—was another turning point. Organizations from across the ASAL linked up to respond to this emergency and activated their own vast networks. Oxfam provided cash and other forms of assistance, and had a chance to meet and partner with so many new organizations. We have the pandemic to thank for another development: humanitarian coordination meetings used to be attended only by UN agencies, big donors, INGOs, and NGOs that were based in Nairobi. When the UN shifted to online meetings, we encouraged them to open them up to local organizations that were responding to the emergencies. There used to be about 10 organizations represented at the coordination meetings; now here are over 100. A change in mindset accompanied that shift—a new recognition that local partners had access to the affected communities, including the means to assess and respond to their needs. Decision makers began seeking out their input. Another milestone was the drought assessment of 2021, which was carried out and published by the AHN. Oxfam supported the work by processing data, but AHN members gathered and helped analyze the information. When it came to share the assessment, we stayed on the sidelines to be sure the AHN got the credit it was due. The network received significant visibility, to the point where AHN is now considered an essential voice of the drought emergency response. International actors consult with them on documents and strategies, AHN coordinates visits by major donors, and aid is beginning to flow directly to the network members. Not long ago the AHN convener spoke at an event beside the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator.

ELIZABETH: Oxfam has committed to transferring an average of 30% of its humanitarian funds to local and national organizations. What percentage of humanitarian funds does the Kenya office pass on to local actors?

MAT: Around 80%. An example of what’s shifted: It used to be that if we received a grant for emergency projects, we would hold the money in our own account and dole it out to the community members ourselves, after engaging in a verification process for recipients. Oxfam continues to engage in verification processes to ensure that the aid reaches the people we intend it to (we are still accountable for the funds), but now we transfer the money to the partner organizations, and they direct it to community members. This enables the groups to develop and demonstrate their capacity to handle large sums of money, which in turn helps them qualify for future grants from big donors.

ELIZABETH: Talk about how the LHL approach is evolving in Kenya in our work with AHN.

MAT: It used to be that we would identify a crisis and tell a partner “We think we should do this.” Now, we co-design projects with partners—a process that’s getting smoother over time.

For water and sanitation and public health interventions, we have invested in training local partners. Our staff continue to provide the technical assistance to ensure quality, but we can cover several partners and counties at once. We have also worked with them to set up e-vouchers for communities to access essential supplies directly from local vendors. As with the cash transfers, we are still involved in verification processes, but it is far timelier and more efficient. We strive to pass on ICR (indirect cost recovery, or overhead expenses) where the donor allows.

A very important development is that AHN organizations are creating stronger relationships among themselves. If a member receives a grant, at the next funding opportunity, it might say to another group, “We know in this county you have the capacity to do this work, so we will recuse ourselves.” There’s competition for resources, for sure, but the members don’t just look out for their own interests; they’re acting more as a collective.

ELIZABETH: What do you think Oxfam has done well in the process of shifting power to local actors?

MAT: We have reduced or ceded our visibility around the drought and flood responses to be sure AHN and its members receive as much as possible. And we have taken measured risks. In emergencies, you always have to balance the need for moving quickly to save lives with the need for strict controls on the flow of resources. This is where trust comes into play. If you as an INGO haven’t built trust with your partners, you won’t be able to move fast enough. But by the time of the drought emergency, we and the local organizations we work with had built that trust. Another thing we did well was to co-create the projects and project proposals with partners, sharing the work and the decision making. In an emergency, we are often under tremendous time pressure from donors and from the demands of the emergency itself, but we have stuck to our local-leadership principles on this. One result is that now more of the AHN organizations are able to write grant proposals themselves and are receiving direct funding from donors.

Oxfam is certainly not the first to pivot towards the local-leadership approach, nor the best at it, but we have an almost unique advantage in that—thanks to our amazing supporters and fundraising teams—we have access to flexible funding. Funding, in other words, that isn’t committed to a set of specific activities. This enables us to innovate and take measured risks, and follow the lead of our partners as they develop the systems and skills they need to make this all work.

ELIZABETH: What haven’t we been so good at?

MAT: Our systems are too bureaucratic, particularly when we are scaling up an emergency response, and they haven’t yet adapted to working with a multitude of partners. This can translate into the slow transfer of funds at times when we need things to be moving fast. And we are offering short-term emergency funds rather than multi-year funding, which is what enables local groups to grow and plan and become sustainable. There are lots of other things we are doing but could be doing better—linking groups to training institutions; supporting resilience and peace-building strategies, good governance, and gender justice; and holding government to account in its role as duty-bearer in and around emergencies. We could also be better in helping the AHN diversify its risks—bringing in new INGO partners and pushing harder for the transformation of the aid system in Kenya. This will obviously take time, but I think we have been a little cautious.

Oxfam in Kenya provides technical support to partner organizations in areas like cash distribution and providing clean water. Mark Wahwai/Oxfam

ELIZABETH: In the course of doing this work, what has surprised you, for better or for worse?

MAT: I hate to admit this, but when I started out, I was surprised at how knowledgeable and capable the local organizations we work with are. And I was definitely surprised when, after I’d been looking around Oxfam for in-house experience with peacebuilding, AHN partners told me that they had been doing this work for years–having taken over an Oxfam program 15 years ago! I’ve also been surprised at how inventive local groups have proven to be when it comes to getting big results from small budgets. And, on the downside, at how entrenched the traditional attitudes and practices of INGOs are. We need to be collaborating in ways that benefit local organizations, but we’re working in a system that fosters competition. Something that can take me by surprise sometimes is the feeling of FOMO [fear of missing out]. When we cede space and funding and visibility we once claimed to local organizations, it isn’t always comfortable. I mention it here because it’s something INGO staffers need to face, admit to, and commit never to act on.

ELIZABETH: Can you say a little more about accountability?

MAT: Okay, so, one level of accountability is to communities, to be sure they feel empowered to report any kind of misbehavior on the part of Oxfam or AHN. We offer a toll-free number and access to independent investigators who can follow up on complaints. We want to be sure any instance of abuse, fraud, or diversion of aid is reported and the accusations acted on. One level of accountability is Oxfam’s responsibilities to our funders; for that, we monitor how local partners—members of the AHN—spend the money we transfer to them, and we solicit input from community members about the effectiveness of the projects. But there is another kind of accountability that we need to come to grips with: the speed with which we provide funds to partners for emergency response. At Oxfam, there are systemic obstacles to moving money quickly; our processes are aimed at ensuring accountability to donors, but unless we can streamline them, we put small organizations into the position of having to spend money they don’t have in order to get their projects underway before the Oxfam funds arrive. If we fail to deliver money in a timely way, partners and communities should hold us accountable for that.

ELIZABETH: What do you see as the appropriate role in international humanitarian work for INGOs, local and national govt, and the private sector? What’s your vision?

MAT: The goal of all the organizations involved in humanitarian and development work needs to be to put ourselves out of a job—leaving communities in the hands of capable, honest, well-resourced governments. For now, we have an important role as a conduit for funds that would not otherwise be available to local organizations. Some donors are not willing or able to transfer funds to local groups directly, so this work is critical.

Another role for organizations like Oxfam is to help amplify local voices, and to help local actors reach international platforms with their messages. We can and do provide tools and support for advocacy and for enabling humanitarian response. We provide technical support, introduce innovations, and help uphold standards of safety and quality.

And we are in a position to advocate with international donors on a host of issues surrounding outcomes and risks that will improve results for poor and disaster-affected communities. With our knowledge of the situation on the ground, we can help donors avoid certain pitfalls and incentivize good long-term outcomes.

Ultimately, INGOs like Oxfam need to shift our roles away from delivering services to helping local actors press government duty-bearers to do their jobs. Communities should be able to look to elected officials and government agencies for resources and leadership before, during, and after disasters. Pressuring the government to fulfill this role is crucial, but it’s best done by local organizations; when an INGO steps in, we can suck the air out of the room, so we need to support from the sidelines. Just to be clear, it is not just Kenya’s government that needs to be urged to fulfill its responsibilities around disaster management. Look what happened in the United States when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. This kind of advocacy probably needs to take place in every country of the world.

The private sector has very important roles to play in the humanitarian and development ecosystems. For example, we rely on telecommunications and mobile money networks to carry out cash distributions in emergencies. And merchants and companies with technical expertise are critical to restoring goods and services in the wake of a disasters. We always need to have safeguards in place when working with the private sector: we are not the marketing arm of any company. That said, when it comes to reducing poverty and suffering, businesses can bring a lot to the table.

ELIZABETH: International donors often lack trust in local and national organizations, which inhibits the direct flow of funds to them. What are your thoughts on how to remedy that?

MAT: Yes. Racism and colonial attitudes play into that. And the fact that small organizations may not have the staff and resources to invest in systems that donors feel are adequate. But sometimes it’s not about trust or intentions; it’s about expediency. An international government donor might not be able to engage with 30 or 300 different local partners in Kenya, because that would be incredibly difficult to administer, so they send their funds to intermediaries—INGOs that have invested in financial and HR systems and safeguarding—and let them do the more hands-on work. We can do that in the short term, but in the long run, we need to find ways to close the gap between international donors and local and national organizations. Part of the remedy is to give local organizations a chance to show the world what they can do. [Read stories about local leadership in action.]

ELIZABETH: Oxfam in Kenya is about to go through a transition from a satellite office of Oxfam to a Kenyan organization with its own board of directors and “affiliate” status within the Oxfam confederation, like Oxfam America and Oxfam Great Britain. What implications does this have for our partnerships in Kenya?

MAT: The affiliation process is all about who holds power and how that power is exerted. By enabling countries that bear the scars of colonialism to take their place beside their historical colonizers, Oxfam is trying to accomplish internationally what we in Kenya are trying to accomplish in country: cede power to those who are best informed about the problems and potential solutions to poverty and disasters.

When we officially become a Kenyan organization, it doesn’t make us “local” in the sense that we should consider ourselves entitled to funding and seats at decision-making tables that are reserved for local actors. We’ve seen INGOs that go national immediately start taking up space that wasn’t intended for organizations like them—groups that have access to resources and networks and certain kinds of expertise that far outstrip those of the truly local actors. Oxfam needs to be clear from the outset that we will not compete with local organizations for space and funding; if we fail to do that, the affiliation process could undermine years of investment in partnerships and local leadership. Local organizations are very concerned about how INGOs that register nationally will conduct themselves, and they should be. I wouldn’t advise any INGO to go national unless it’s dedicated to a local-leadership approach. [Read an article and blog on this topic.]

ELIZABETH: The push for “localization” kicked off internationally in 2016; do you think now that international or local/national actors are leading the charge? What is Oxfam in Kenya’s role in making this paradigm shift a reality?

MAT: There are lots of global initiatives, and they have provided impetus (and authority) for discussions to start. But where we have really seen change happen is when we put local-leadership principles into practice, when we learn from our mistakes, and when we are intentional in bringing others on board to keep the momentum going. We have seen a significant shift in terms of encouragement by international donors to better align with the localization agenda. That’s crucial, and it’s due in part to our advocacy efforts. We are constantly talking to donors. And we have been working with our peers, forming coalitions and consortiums with INGOs that share our commitment to change. They have started shifting their ways of working, from direct programing to providing technical and quality support. In my view, INGOs in Kenya that fail to adopt this way of working—who are attached to providing aid directly and also to waving their brand about—will become irrelevant. Left high and dry, unable to support large operational programs, and unable to show the value for money that their peers are able to achieve.

ELIZABETH: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

MAT: Oxfam is going through a process of introspection in an effort to address past mistakes and move forward with a more equitable agenda for sharing power and resources. We are exploring what decolonization of aid and feminist approaches really mean in practice. Local leadership is aligned with this agenda, and we feel that we have been given a very strong mandate by the organization to put its principles into action.

But this is not just a matter of who hands out the hygiene kits. The communities we work with are living on the bleeding edge of the climate crisis, and the impacts and solutions are not all about the weather. They’re about good governance and gender justice. They’re about transparency and accountability. Every facet of these issues benefits from local leadership. Oxfam has important work to do in emergencies around the world, sometimes directly and sometimes as collaborators and supporters. We need to try and be the best possible partner to local organizations. That’s the challenge before us. Our work in Kenya is imperfect and incomplete, but I think we are on the right track, and I hope both the Oxfam confederation and the wider humanitarian system can benefit from our experience.

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+