Local aid workers are on the front lines of the world’s crises, even if they’re frequently overshadowed in the global humanitarian sector. Donors and aid agencies have promised to put more power and funding into locally driven responses, but has anything actually changed?
Our recent webinar – From the ground up: the state of local aid – brought together three people with first-hand perspectives of how local responses are evolving.
Speaking with TNH editor Irwin Loy, the panelists offered examples of grassroots aid in action, and discussed how presumptions about local skills and abilities have obstructed reforms.
“Look at it from the other perspective: in every emergency, the first responders are the neighbours, the people,” said Evans Onyiego of Caritas Maralal, who works with pastoralist communities facing increasing conflict and environmental pressures in northern Kenya.
International agencies are sometimes accused of swooping in and dominating responses – leaving local aid groups worse off than before a disaster.
Ecoweb, an NGO based in Mindanao in the Philippines, was one of many local organisations that took a leading role responding to the violent 2017 siege of the city of Marawi. Regina Salvador-Antequisa, the group’s executive director, often sees trained staff poached by big international organisations during such crises.
“It's really draining and weakening,” she said. “When the crisis is over, internationals will just leave – and leave this local organisation behind to cope.”
Sune Gudnitz, who works with humanitarian training organisation RedR Australia, spoke of the need to find new funding sources so that local groups aren’t entirely dependent on traditional donors.
“You will not get that freedom to respond to what you think is right as long as you are tied into an agenda that is run by somebody else,” he said.
This TNH Roundtable also addresses some of the thornier questions. Do local responses listen to what aid recipients need any more than internationally driven operations? And if responses are truly local, then what role does the broader aid sector play?
Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, follow. You can listen to the full conversation here.
Regina Salvador-Antequisa, executive director for Ecoweb, an NGO based in Mindanao in the Philippines
Sune Gudnitz, associate director for strategy and partnerships with RedR Australia, a humanitarian training organisation, and former head of UN OCHA in the Pacific
Evans Onyiego, director for Caritas Maralal in northern Kenya
On redefining what ‘capacity’ means
Evans Onyiego: ”One assumption is that the local organisations don't have capacity to be able to intervene in emergencies. But look at it from the other perspective: in every emergency, the first responders are the neighbours, the people. The women in that village are the ones who respond first to any emergency. I have worked with different local groups in the villages and they know what they want.
“So for me, the issue of capacity has been an issue of context. Is the capacity determined by a different quarter, while the local communities have not been given the opportunity to say ‘this is the capacity that we need to be able to respond’?”
Regina Salvador-Antequisa: “Usually it’s defined as the capacity of the locals to meet humanitarian performance standards set by the internationals, which I would say is based more on the capacity of the international NGOs rather than on the realities of the limited resources of local organisations. But for us, capacity should also be defined as the capacity to reach communities affected by disasters.
“We see that locals really have the capacity to effectively facilitate humanitarian aid because they have the local knowledge, existing networks, and especially the presence prior to the crisis.”
"They will come, they will deliver whatever they're supposed to deliver, and go. Their work is finished."
Sune Gudnitz: “I would take one concrete example: the faith-based church organisations in the Pacific, which have enormous reach into local communities. But international responders for a long while were completely unable to understand how faith played a role in disaster response and how churches could be used as a multiplier and were already playing an enormous role. And therefore starting a disaster response without engaging the faith-based community is a huge mistake.”
On local responses undermined in crises
Onyiego: “When there is an emergency, most of these internationals will come to respond to a specific emergency. Most of the time, there are so many other issues that are related. For example, in a drought: they will come, they will deliver whatever they're supposed to deliver, and go. Their work is finished.
“But you’ll find there are so many other things that they did not consider and that they cannot see because they don't come from that environment. So in this case, it causes a lot of damage and a lot of conflicts, and now the local organisations are left struggling to repair the damage.”
Salvador-Antequisa: ”I can relate to what Evans is sharing. Also, in surge crises, when internationals come in, usually the best-trained staff of local organisations are hired by the big organisations. Of course, they offer more competitive salaries, and for a local organisation with very limited resources to train staff again and again, it's really draining and weakening. When the crisis is over, internationals will just leave – and leave this local organisation behind to cope.”
Gudnitz: “I think it's a very complex issue because anyone who has been in disaster response knows how many pressures intersect. There’s the pressure to save lives; there's the pressure to respond quickly; there's the pressure to get people on the ground. Everyone has their own constituencies that they are answering to, right or wrong. And it's very hard sometimes, in the heat of the moment, to ascertain whether you're doing too much or too little because you will be criticised either way.
"It's very hard sometimes, in the heat of the moment, to ascertain whether you're doing too much or too little because you will be criticised either way."
“We have seen that in the Pacific, during Tropical Cyclone Pam, which affected 76 percent of the population, the prime minister of Vanuatu very rightly said, ‘Guys, we need all the help we can get.’ That meant that everybody got on to responding in Vanuatu. It's a small country and, in that particular case, there was a question of too much good getting in the way of doing the right thing. I think the way to do this right, and to avoid it happening in the future, is to look at where you're going and really listen to the local leadership. And take the queue: do we need more, do we need less, and be sure that that the response is demand-driven and not supply-driven. I think this often can be confused.”
On (mis)trust and learning to take risks
Onyiego: “The challenges we are facing are basically linked to mistrust. And this mistrust is linked to capacity, where local organisations are measured based on their capacity – which is often linked to academic qualifications, and physical structures. This can make people think you will not have the capacity to effectively and efficiently respond.
“My take is that capacity can be built and can be developed best in the context. For example, at the moment, we are testing different approaches. We are giving money to the small, small community organisations, which don't even have physical offices. But they’ve formed the modalities on how they're going to transfer those resources to the needy communities – and they're doing it. We have learned to trust those local communities and they have set their own systems. And we are giving the money to the women and they're doing it very effectively. So it's worth trying and it can never happen without us taking the risk.”
"This element of mistrust is really affecting the localisation agenda that we're pushing."
Salvador-Antequisa: “Another level of mistrust we're seeing is we are promoting this ‘survivor and community-led response’ approach. And one of the important components is cash grants, because we see this as empowering and enabling people to immediately turn into action their capacity for self-help and decision-making. But especially in conflict settings, there is this distrust: cash assistance might get to the hands of undesired elements or… supporting terrorism. So there is really this distrust. Even if the community would prefer cash as they are saying it is really helping them, this element of mistrust is really affecting the localisation agenda that we're pushing.”
On localisation as an issue of social justice
Salvador-Antequisa: “The present architecture of the world humanitarian system is only a byproduct of the centuries of unequal relationships between what we call the northern countries and what are now considered developing countries. If we talk about localisation, this should not be separated from the issue of injustice, inequality, and imbalance of power. Localisation, therefore, is about transforming the current power dynamic in the humanitarian system.”
On the international role in a locally driven aid response
Onyiego: “If internationals feel capacity is important, then they need to be involved in developing those capacities. And also recognising the role of local organisations and supporting them to function in a more efficient and responsive way. There should be a balance of power so that when international organisations respond, they are at the same time doing it hand-in-hand with local organisations, so there is a transfer of skills.”
Salvador-Antequisa: “It's not only partnering with a local organisation, but ensuring that those affected by crisis are really enabled to lead the response. That should be from planning up to implementation and monitoring. If we really would like to move forward, we should be coming up with a more meaningful partnership that should not be dictated or defined only by internationals but with the locals together. That’s really very important for us in Mindanao.”
On participation: including aid recipients in decision-making
Gudnitz: “We need to move from talking about ‘participation’ to really building a system that incorporates proper participation when designing responses. As a responder, you have an idea of what the needs are, but you may be told that that's not what we need. Now, how ready are you to change? That flexibility and ability to adapt is really critical and I question to what extent a lot of responders are capable of doing that – all the way up from the donors, all the way down to the local organisations. If you’re not ready to change, then I would say that we haven't come very far. And we won’t achieve an actual transformation until this has been done.”
"That flexibility to adapt is really critical and I question to what extent a lot of responders are capable of doing that – all the way up from the donors, all the way down to the local organisations."
On whether things are changing
Salvador-Antequisa: “I really hope our actual experience on the ground will be able to challenge the notions and assumptions of many internationals that are still not convinced about localisation. I hope that they would see the impact of community-led response and that the capacity of locals is demonstrated.”
Gudnitz: “From my experience in the Pacific, it’s positive to see that more governments there are taking their role and their responsibility in building disaster response capacity much more seriously. Rather than sitting back and waiting for others to respond, they realise that their way to emancipate, or take the leadership of the response into their own hands, is to have their own capacity, and they’re prioritising the means to build that capacity. That’s positive.
“There’s a lot more research being done looking at how we can adapt responses to local contexts. But it has to lead to something. Something's got to give for responses to be improved, and to actually take all this learning and make it work in practice. I think, most importantly, we need to find ways for local organisations to generate income so that they are not always dependent on public funding, which often is tied to political agendas. You will not get that freedom to respond to what you think is right as long as you are tied into an agenda that is run by somebody else.”
"People are beginning to realise that we have not been moving in the right direction."
Onyiego: “The fact that that these discussions are taking place, that is one indication that people are beginning to realise that we have not been moving in the right direction, and we need to rethink our interventions and how we've been carrying out our business. There are better ways of undertaking our humanitarian responses. For me, it’s also the awareness in the community. They are more aware now. Most of the communities now know they have the power even to say ‘no’ to some of the things they feel are not right for them. They are more aware of their rights.”
(TOP PHOTO: Villagers search for belongings in the debris of damaged homes in Nepal’s southern Bara district on 1 April, following a windstorm that killed at least 27 people.)