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 answer, as is often the case, lies in what the people closest to the ground say about the aid they provide or receive: the affected populations, the field staff of international organisations (INGOs) and, importantly, the local partners. A couple of recent surveys carried out by Ground Truth in partnership with the OECD shed light on what happens when you localise aid in two of the world’s most unstable places: Iraq and Somalia. Hundreds of staff from INGOs, local organisations and UN agencies were interviewed in the second half of 2017.

Some findings are sadly predictable, confirming what has emerged from other similar studies in the last few years. People receiving aid know very little about what aid organisations do. Less than half of the people interviewed in both Iraq and Somalia know how to report a complaint to aid providers about the services provided. There is also a lot of skepticism with regard to people’s ability to influence decisions about where, when and how aid is provided to them. The way aid projects are run – most respondents say – still reflects a top-down approach and most humanitarian programmes come pre-designed, with little or no flexibility for change.

Other findings once again underline the importance of context. In a country like Somalia, people seem to be far more optimistic and feel safer than one might expect. While this finding is consistent with other research on Somali populations, it is in stark contrast with the pessimism of most Iraqi respondents, who see no signs of progress in the near future. What is so unique about Somalia then? According to the survey findings, it could be that human perceptions tend to be relative to immediate past experiences – in this case, a new sense of security after decades of brutal fighting – but I suspect other factors might be at play. It would be interesting to find out.

The most surprising findings, however, concern how local partners view international organisations. On average, local associations in Somalia rate their UN partners higher than INGOs.  This seems to go counter to expectations, as INGOs usually work a lot closer to local partners than the UN. Nevertheless, this unusual rating comes up across different aspects of localisation – UN agencies are highly appreciated for their support on technical skills, communications, and strategic and participatory approaches. INGOs fare well in terms of providing leadership, management and financial management skills but come under a lot of scrutiny for their lack of support to the core costs and long-term planning of their local partner organisations, both in Iraq and Somalia. Why such a major divide? Could it be that when it comes to building institutional capacity, collaboration between international and local NGOs becomes tricky and gives way to competition? When asked whether INGOs provide sufficient funding to their national partners, 55% of local NGO staff either gave a negative reply or chose not to answer.

Clearly, aid localisation is a sensitive issue that requires more honest discussions between local and international NGOs, as well as between NGOs and their donors. In fact, more transparency and accountability is what survey respondents recommend in both Iraq and Somalia to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of aid. As Ground Truth notes, knowing whether aid has been provided only gives us an incomplete picture. The missing link is perceptual data – information about what people think about the aid they receive or provide and whether they find it useful. Until we have this data asymmetry, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if localisation efforts continue producing limited results.