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 the outcomes of a project-closing event, “Listening to Local Partners: Advancing Localisation of Aid through Strong Feedback Practices”, hosted by the International Rescue Committee and its Dutch partner, Stichting Vluchteling (SV), in The Hague earlier this month.
The event gathered international NGOs or INGOs including Oxfam, Save the Children, ZOA and others, as well as IRC and SV’s local partners Info Park, Serbia; Sonbola Group for Education and Development, Lebanon; and Karen Human Rights Group, Thailand. Research was presented by Ground Truth Solutions and CDA Collaborative, who helped facilitate refreshingly open discussions on whether humanitarians are localising aid in practice, and how partner feedback can feed into effective practices.
I came away from the meeting with three main conclusions. First, we INGOs are not where we should be in living up to our commitment to localise aid – and that’s hardly a surprise. Back in 2016, we launched the Grand Bargain on aid efficiency and effectiveness together with traditional donors and several UN agencies. The Grand Bargain articulated our commitment to improve our ways of working in support and recognition of the power of local actors, for example by either removing or reducing barriers that prevent us from partnering with local responders, and channeling at least 25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible. Over the past two years, we have discovered that localisation means different things to different actors and we are still clarifying definitions and debating legal technicalities. As important as that work is, we have just scratched the surface in addressing the actual challenge of better localising as a humanitarian collective.
Which brings me to my second takeaway. We tend to talk about localisation through the lens of formal partnerships with local humanitarian responders as a way to share knowledge, standards, and technical skills, mostly through funding or in-kind aid. While many of the event participants were comfortable with this approach, some argued that localisation is far more than that. Can there be localisation in the absence of a transaction? There are no easy answers to this question, which came as a moment of reckoning. We are so used to working within the confines of our contractual donor requirements that we end up equating localisation with transfers of resources, usually through a donor-funded sub-grant.
In fact, and that’s my third takeaway, all sorts of partnerships are possible if we are willing to step out of the box and redefine our role as international NGOs. Info Park Serbia described their newfound expertise in gender and women’s empowerment as the most important outcome of their partnership with the IRC. Sonbola’s executive director challenged participants to rethink partnerships in terms of transparent relationships between peers, focusing on capacity-sharing and strengths assessments, rather than capacity-building and needs analyses. This leads us back to the purpose of the event: to explore effective feedback practices as a means to learn from local actors, to include their voices in our decision making, and to create true partnerships that encourage mutual learning.
As Sonbola rightly asked, if our local partners are already leaders in their field of action, why do we need international NGOs? As is often the case, the meeting ended just when the conversation was getting most intriguing. A few colleagues noted that INGOs must tackle their own exit strategies more seriously. I personally believe localisation does not necessarily mean the end of INGOs. Rather, we need to redefine ourselves together with our partners, asking them, through good feedback practices, what our added value is in each context in which we work. Perhaps we are most useful as conveners, advocates, facilitators, trainers, or external experts. Or, more importantly, we need to recognise that in many countries in which we operate, our strength is most felt through our role as a buffer between restrictive governments and civil societies in our era of threatened human rights and shrinking civic space worldwide.
It would be good to have more time to discuss INGOs’ role at the next localisation meeting. And, since I am at it, we should invite our local partners to lead those future discussions.
Photo credit: IRC