Politics of Poverty

“We matter”: Lessons from Addis on local humanitarian leadership

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Sidi Jaquite, leader of community-based organization NADEL, talks to the organization's Rapid Response Team in Catio Guinea-Bissau. The team deployed to communities that were slow to recognize the urgent need for Ebola preparedness measures-- living in tents until they were satisfied the job was done. (Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America)

As the discussion around the important role of local actors in humanitarian situations grows, some important questions to keep in mind.

Tara R. Gingerich is Senior Humanitarian Researcher at Oxfam America.

I’ve just come from the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies; a serious, sometimes cynical, biannual gathering of mostly academics and practitioners focused on humanitarian research, practice, evaluation, and trends. This moment is a particularly interesting one for the humanitarian community, as we’re facing a number of serious issues. The conference provided the space for discussion and reflection on: the breadth of our mandate, whether we are learning sufficiently from past experience, the need to be wary of determining “universal” values and principles that may reflect only the small group of humanitarian actors in the Global North who set the rules of humanitarian assistance, and the fact that, as humanitarians, we cannot solve crises  that are inherently political (though often dubbed “humanitarian crises”), only alleviate some of the need and suffering.

One of the hottest topics of the conference was local humanitarian leadership – the concept that, wherever possible, it is the local actors (governments, civil society organizations, etc.) in crisis-affected countries that should be leading humanitarian preparedness and response, with international actors supporting their efforts with financial, technical, and logistical assistance when needed.

This topic is near and dear to our hearts at Oxfam. It figures prominently in our Strategic Plan and is the subject of recent research and policy reports and our brand-new ‘No Parachutes Needed’ campaign.

Oxfam organized a panel at the conference on this theme, and we were lucky to have a fantastic, knowledgeable, and thoughtful group of panelists from government, international and local civil society, regional institutions, and academia. Even though I have been focused on local leadership for over two years, the discussion was thought-provoking and left me thinking about several key questions from the perspectives of both organizations in the Global North and Global South.

  • What do we mean by local? We need to be careful, pragmatic, and clear in our use of the term “local,” as it is both a matter of perception – i.e., it means different things to different people, based on their perspectives – and also fluid. For example, who are the “local actors” in Syria? Also, it serves no one any good for us to treat “international” and “local” as binaries, nor to treat “local” as being either a panacea for all that is wrong with the humanitarian system or a generalized problem to be avoided. We also need to be mindful of the “locals within locals,” and make sure that the local actors with whom we interact are, in fact, representing their community well, and not just the elite within it.
  • What is our rationale for advocating for local leadership? Is local leadership being promoted because it will allow us to reach more people with humanitarian assistance, saving more lives and livelihoods, because putting those affected most by crises in the driver’s seat of the response is the right thing to do, or both? (For Oxfam, I think it’s both, but it’s a critical question for us all, as either rationale has implications for gathering evidence, “proving” that it is the best course, etc.)
  • How can we get donors to make their funding more accessible to local actors? Government donors have come to count on international NGOs to play the role of “fundermediaries,” in that they rely on international NGOs to implement their programs and the international NGOs, in turn, local partners are relegated to the sub-contractor role. The fact that many donors are hesitant to build relationships with a whole batch of new (local) partners makes it more difficult for international NGOs to step out of the way and allow their local partners to work directly with the big donors. It’s important that we think about and advocate for new ways of doing business – international NGOs and donors alike – so that including and strengthening local organizations is a default rather than an afterthought.
  • Are local organizations prepared to take on a larger role? In a recent survey of local and national NGOs in the Global South, 84 percent of the respondents said that national actors have potential to play a leadership role but need to strengthen their capacity. Supplementary focus group discussions found that local actors feel their opinions are not respected and they are marginalized from priority and decision-making processes, despite the fact that they play a significant role in humanitarian action. There is a key role for international NGOs and donors to play in strengthening the capacity of local organizations and ensuring they are at the decision-making table. Those affected most directly by crises should be at the forefront of deciding how to prepare for and respond to them.
  • How can we ensure that humanitarian assistance goes to the places that need it the most and that it is appropriate? We heard a clear example of the current system’s wildly disparate responses to humanitarian crises. Following the 2011 earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan, the government received a tremendous amount of “stuff,” most of it unneeded. Not only did it take 1-3 months before the goods could be distributed, given the limited capacity at the time, but 30 percent of the goods were eventually discarded. Including local voices in the decisions about what is needed would go a long way toward making sure resources are used efficiently and on things that actually help communities in crisis.
  • How can we highlight and learn from locally-led programs that work? We heard about the success of the Ethiopian government-led and managed Productive Safety Net Program, which combines food security, livelihoods, and resilience. The PSNP program has grown from providing assistance to 4.5 million people in Ethiopia to now supporting 7.9 million people, providing increasingly critical support as drought has left 10.2 million people in need of assistance. These are the types of programs and examples we should be promoting.
  • What are the opportunities for increasing local capacity and leadership in conflict settings? We heard about the situation in Sudan, where a recent government policy requires the involvement of local NGOs and may create an opportunity for increased and improved capacity-strengthening of local actors by the international community. We need to continue to look for any openings, even in conflict settings, where international actors can contribute to an increased capacity and profile for local actors in humanitarian situations.

The statement that made the greatest impression on me was from the Executive Director of a NGO working in Darfur, Sudan – and a partner of Oxfam’s:

“We matter. We are just as valuable and important as international actors. We have the same skills as you. We just haven’t had the same opportunities as you.”

And this is why, in spite of the fact that moving toward a system of local humanitarian leadership is not simple or going to happen overnight in all corners of the globe, I left the conference more committed to my job of gathering evidence to support turning the humanitarian system on its head – so that local actors do have the same opportunities as international actors to affect positive change in their own countries.

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