A few months ago I met a brilliant colleague, Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu, at a global meeting on how to improve humanitarian action. Sema is the Executive Director and Board Member of Support to Life, a Turkish NGO. She also heads the largest global network of local aid organisations, NEAR. As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads to the global South, Sema shares her perspectives on humanitarian aid, how to improve it and what local organisations can contribute to address the challenge of our time.
Sema, tell me a bit about yourself. What has led you to be the head of Support to Life in Turkey and then internationally?
I’ve been doing humanitarian work for 24 years now. Right after graduate school, I knew I would be interested in international development. The charity concerts in the early 80s made me realise the suffering that goes on in the world and inspired me to provide better conditions for people in need. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realised I could choose international development as a career. I started out in engineering, then switched majors and studied international affairs. At the end of those four years, I thought NGOs were great on paper but did they really do the work?
I left Turkey when I was six, then lived in the Netherlands, Luxemburg and Brussels, Belgium. I was mostly in the Global North but wanted to be in the field where the actual work gets done. After getting a degree in Human Ecology I went to India to do field research for three months. That experience gave me the vision I have now, I saw people mobilising to do something for themselves. In Turkey and Iran we have strong states and weak civil societies, in India it’s the reverse, people believe in themselves first. Believing in people’s potential has always been my guiding star. Self-mobilisation and community initiatives are key.
After India, I started working with refugees from the Balkans for a Turkish NGO. I ended up doing rural development work with them for eight years. Then I decided to set up my own NGO with four other women. Some of them had already been involved in rights-based and development work and I knew I could run a NGO the way I thought it should be run – with a theoretical background, accountability, principles and ethical standards. We established Support to Life in 2005.
Is Support to Life an international or a national Turkish NGO?
Support to Life is registered as a national Turkish NGO, originally based in Ankara, then we moved to Istanbul. We have been working overseas in Iran and Pakistan. After September 11, we helped a lot of refugees from Afghanistan, then the people hit by the earthquake in Bam, Iran. Then we had the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. We lost a dear friend in a bomb attack in Pakistan, it led us to take our work and security more seriously. At the time we didn’t realise we were taking a lot of risk, we would just go and provide assistance no matter what.
We realised we needed to look at our own internal management, not just run projects. Humanitarian work is so project-based. This incident was a turning point, we refocused on strengthening our institutional base in Turkey after working overseas for many years. We prioritised setting up internal systems and structures. Throughout this process of strengthening our institutional capacity, I got interested in localisation, [that is, in efforts to channel resources to local actors as directly as possible so that aid becomes more efficient]. I’ve always been interested in this topic. Localisation had to do with how I was working and the challenges of being a local actor. Equitable risk-sharing is a key focus of localisation. As a local partner, no one was really offering us additional resources for the extra risk we were taking by working as frontline responders. So I understood I had to be firm in asking; unless I negotiated for those things, [the transaction with donors] would always be about minimising costs. Finding myself in the middle of this situation has made me very passionate about localisation.
Then came the preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit [which took place in Istanbul in 2016]. They were very inclusive, it was an intense and exciting period for NGOs from the Global South. We rallied behind Jemilah Mahmoud [then Chief of the Summit secretariat], she knew well who needed to be involved. As I attended the preparatory events, I realised everyone who defined themselves as local actors had the same challenges. I wondered, if we all have the same problems, why don’t we speak as a collective? That could really add value and a strong voice to the debate. Together with these local NGOs, we put together the idea of creating a global network and bring others on board for the Summit. We prepared hard and launched the NEAR network at the World Humanitarian Summit. We wanted it to make noise and we achieved that by launching our network at the Summit.
Technically, we were an international NGO (INGO) while working in Pakistan and Iran, but at the end of the day it didn’t make a big difference because only international NGOs headquartered in the Global North are called INGOs. This status was debated at global level within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee localisation work stream and eventually it was agreed to call organisations like ours ‘Southern-based INGOs’.
As a NEAR representative you closely follow global efforts to localise aid. What is your take on the current state of localisation efforts at the international level? What about at the country and local level?
The upside of global processes like the Grand Bargain [an international initiative established in 2016 to make humanitarian action more efficient and effective] is that local actors have realised they are doing a lot and should be in the driver’s seat. They have understood the power they have. First responders are always local. Money comes in later and, when it comes, donors talk about ‘beneficiaries’. In Turkey, we call them ‘affected people’ or ‘right-holders’. It’s a good opportunity to reflect and realise we need to be more vocal as locals. The whole humanitarian system comes from a different narrative. [The humanitarian narrative] was shaped in the Global North and still alienates local actors. My upbringing was in Europe; when I came back to Turkey I realised the way I worked, even the way I communicated was very different. Especially when I went back to India, it was a paradigm shift, in India knowledge is so localised, while in the North it becomes a theory, it is grandiose. It got me questioning. I could understand both sides.
I get invited to global level policy discussions but it’s precisely because I am familiar [with global processes] and speak the language that it is easier for me to be there. I’ve seen other local partners get intimidated by a world that has its own jargon, its own standards, its own boxes. You need to be in command if you want to engage and be a part of their system. Instead, I am creating impact here in this local space, which I enjoy tremendously.
Even the world ‘humanitarian’ is Northern-based. In the Global South we talk more about disaster management – which includes process before and after a crisis. Naturally, the Global North is more interested in the response and hence the humanitarian system as we know it has focused on international actors. As a result, when you enter the international humanitarian world, donors talk about capacity, but it’s really only about the capacity to comply to their rules and regulations. For us first responders, we often ask ourselves “why should I channel so much of my human resources to so much reporting and paperwork that takes up so much time and energy that I should be giving to affected people?”. Often when I am sitting there [in these global meetings], I have to express myself in their language to be accepted and listened to. You get the patronising tone because we don’t spend the time to genuinely listen to each other.
Within the framework of localisation, there is much discussion on new ways of doing things, new ways of partnering, new ways of channeling funds, but the humanitarian system is a big machine and its main actors are established institutions, and it is clearly not an easy task to start challenging and exploring new ways of working. How easy is it for an international NGO to question its core existence and change its business model? Deciding to become non-operational for example would mean shrinking for that INGO. With loads of humanitarian funds coming in, it is clear that no agency would take that step. This ties directly into why it is so difficult to genuinely shift power and the roles of many actors involved in the humanitarian system.
I always think we talk a lot but do very little to shift power. Initiatives like Kiliza are important.
Four years on, what do you think the Grand Bargain has achieved? What barriers, if any, does it still need to overcome?
For sure the Grand Bargain has been excellent in bringing localisation discussions to the table. Donors do acknowledge things have to work differently to get value for their money. There has been a good push to start talking about how we can change things. But we are really talking about shifting power and still have about quite a way to go. We need to step up as local actors, we can’t have other people do things for us without us. We see international actors taking the lead on localisation but we as local actors are not there! We keep making the same mistakes over and over again. As local actors, we need to take leadership and ownership if we want to see genuine change.
In a disaster, coping mechanisms are overloaded, that’s exactly how we define a disaster. We can’t cope. Humanitarian aid is a system of solidarity and burden-sharing. Local governments and NGOs are in the same basket. If a big NGO comes in with big support, we need all the hands we can get at the height of an emergency, but coming in with a pre-determined intervention doesn’t work. Donors tend to channel a big chunk of their money through the UN, then through INGOs – it’s a mindset, even if you are present as a local NGO, it’s overpowering. Talking about resilience when you’ve just undermined local mechanisms is hypocritical. We don’t genuinely look at the impact we create on affected populations. We just look at how economically we have used the money and how compliant we have been. It’s only about the documentation we are able to present.
What about women’s participation in aid? How can we ensure it is meaningful?
We already see many women proactive in the humanitarian sphere. I don’t feel they are undermined, in Iran for example we have actually worked more with women than men. Women are always more eager to step up and take responsibility for the whole family. In Pakistan after the Kashmir earthquake, we had different focus groups, one with men and one with women. Women think more about their children and prioritise the needs of the family, while men focus on what they bring from the outside. Women already play a key role. We see women as quite present at policy level and on the ground. In a way, [women’s situation] is similar to my point on having to learn the language, if women want to succeed, they have to be less of a nurturer and more of a warrior. Gender equality itself is actually a biased concept because we take the system as it is set up by men. No one asks me if I have a complaint mechanism within the communities I work with. It’s all about results. Development is a process but you don’t see it reflected in a results-based framework, it is a masculine approach. The female approach is more about facilitating and focusing on change as a process rather than focusing merely on the end product.
If women were really shaping the humanitarian system, it would work very differently. It’s a patriarchal perspective, if we want to engage, we have to do it on men’s terms. I have always felt equally represented [in my organisation]. We do make sure we work with women as well as men in policy and practice.
Do you have any advice for international actors on how to accelerate aid localisation?
For those who do hold the resources it is important to look at their role: what is their added value? We don’t question that enough, how it really complements, rather than overpowers, existing mechanisms. But it’s not easy because it challenges their business model and the need to challenge that model. Recently I have learned that the Australian Red Cross has completely changed its model. They are genuinely considering (and perhaps even acting) to shrink their own structure and hand over the resources and power to local Societies. We need more of these good examples.
Over the years we have partnered with many INGOs. The big difference has been between faith-based organisations versus the strictly secular NGOs. When I started in this field, we would partner with faith-based organisations and enjoyed it a lot because they were not operational but would work through local partners like us. These organisations acknowledge and respect local capacity in their organisational culture. They recognise we have the local knowledge, so we have complementarity. They already have a culture of trusting local partners, there’s more flexibility about the use of funding and the quality of the relationship. With secular NGOs, we have a partnership that focuses more on technical support. This is a different kind of collaboration, it’s about being sub-contracted and receiving resources and technical know-how depending on the expertise required in a particular project.
Any final thoughts on how local aid organisations can contribute in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic in the global South?
It is critical that the Covid-19 response be a locally led one. This is anyway a crisis in which international actors are not able to fly in and take over the coordination and response effort. It is up to local actors to prove themselves. They have the local knowledge, they know the local culture, they know the needs, and they have the local solutions. This is a great opportunity for them to step up and define how the response is shaped. This is their chance to demonstrate that there are different ways of doing things and that local actors really have the capacity to make a difference – of course provided that they receive the needed resources and support from the international community throughout this endeavor.
Photo credit: Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu