At the beginning of the year I wrote about the challenge of localising aid or, broadly put, how to help local civil society organisations to better respond to a crisis by strengthening their capacity and channeling more international funding directly through them. As 2018 draws to a close, I come back to this topic to share the latest thinking based on what I heard from a few local partners themselves at a recent event held in The Hague.
During the summer break I finally had the time to reflect on the impact of the “Me Too” movement on the aid sector. A lot has been said already and yet we still know very little about the actual scale of the problem and even less about how it affects local aid workers in developing countries. This is what I find peculiar about current discussions on sexual harassment and abuse. Most of them reflect an expat’s lens instead of local workers' views.
This year marks my twentieth anniversary of working in the humanitarian and development sector. One of the issues I grapple most with these days is whether international aid is still, fundamentally, a Western construct based on assumptions that are no longer relevant, or if it is a universal form of assistance that takes different shapes depending on the region of the world we work in. In particular, if international cooperation is truly universal, is it paying more attention to what Southern citizens and the people directly affected by a crisis think of the aid they receive across the board, or is citizen engagement just another Western trend?
There are plenty of studies on civil society movements – how they start, grow and make citizen voices heard. Much less do we know about what happens at the other side of the negotiating table: how do public officials interacting with civil society representatives decide to respond to their requests? What drives bureaucrats’ decisions and why?
I have recently started a new job with the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in humanitarian aid in countries affected by conflict and natural disasters.Coming back to the humanitarian sector after over a decade, I am struck to find that many discussions about the efficiency and effectiveness of aid replicate what has been said in development circles for years. One issue in particular is at the heart of discussions old and new: the challenge of ‘localising aid’, that is, helping local civil society organisations to better respond to a crisis through increased capacity and more direct funding from donor governments. Having agreed globally in 2016 that we should indeed localise aid, the humanitarian community is now tackling the big question: are we seeing any real change?
The development literature of the 1980s and 1990s gave considerable attention to participation in development – engaging local people, the “beneficiaries”, in decisions relating to their own development. This school of thought quickly drew criticism as the question was asked: what are they participating in? Of course, the answer was frequently that participation was little more than mobilising people in implementing an outside agenda, however well-meaning that may have been.
When we advocate human rights broadly, it is easy to rally support around them. Who doesn’t want to be a defender of freedom or protection? However, advocacy becomes a lot more challenging when we single out specific groups of people whose rights are under threat on a daily basis. We still periodically need to remind ourselves and others that ‘women’s rights are human rights’, for example. And not everybody who supports human rights in general is ready to stand by the rights of other gender-based groups, such as gender and sexual minorities, otherwise known as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people.
“How do you measure social change?” As a consultant, I am often asked this question when I evaluate programmes or campaigns that are meant to produce some sort of social progress in the global South. I guess the underlying dilemma is about whether we can quantify qualitative changes, such as better dialogue between aid donors and civil society organisations. Is there a way to measure quality with numbers?
It has already been a year since the adoption of the “Grand Bargain”, a global agreement made at the World Humanitarian Summit to save up to a billion US dollars over five years by reducing inefficiencies in how humanitarian aid is provided. How well are we doing? Are things actually changing where they are supposed to? Is humanitarian aid becoming more efficient and effective?