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Survival of the biggest - side-lining of local NGOs in disasters

South Sudanese refugees waiting in line to get food at the Dzaipi transit centre in Uganda UNHCR/F.Noy
The traditional model: South Sudanese refugees in Uganda waiting for UN food aid
Five days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, Paul Valentin was giving a TV interview in his role as international director of Christian Aid.

“They were pushing me quite hard,” he said, “and showing footage of Tacloban [city in central Philippines devastated by the November 2013 typhoon], saying that people were suffering but apparently nothing was happening. And the question was, 'Why hasn't the humanitarian response kicked off yet?' And my response was 'The response has already started, but you are looking for the Land Rovers and the signboards, and the planes full of aid workers, and I believe local organizations are the first line of response.”

Nearly all today's international aid giants started local. Save the Children began in the UK by fund-raising for refugee children after World War I, but most of its activity in the early years was at home, working with the children of poor families in England and Wales. Now it is a global organization, working in 120 countries, and headquartered in a gleaming office block in the City of London, where it brought aid workers together with historians and social scientists last week to explore the ways the local and the global relate, and how they are changing.

Juliano Fiori, one of the organizers of the meeting, told IRIN: “It is very important that humanitarian organizations develop their consciousness of the events, the intellectual traditions and the politics that have shaped their practice if they are to improve the effectiveness of their efforts to support crisis-affected communities, and it is also important that they broaden their understanding of other humanitarian cultures with which they interact, through historical inquiry.”

“Day Four Effect”

Many of the aid workers at the meeting were uncomfortably aware of the way the international contingent tends to crowd out local humanitarian efforts.

David Hockaday, from the consortium of British humanitarian agencies known as the Start Network, called it the “Day Four Effect”. “Day Four is probably the crowd-out moment,” he said, “and I think it's interesting that there's almost a lack of acknowledgement of what happens in the first 72 hours, as if there's a crisis situation waiting for the international fire-fighters to step in. And then we assume that the point at which we integrate local knowledge is some way down the track towards transition.”

That in itself can be a problem, when the big international NGOs head-hunt the best local staff, reducing the capacity of local organizations still further.

Some crowding out may be inevitable, especially in situations like the Haiti earthquake, where the scale of the disaster completely overwhelmed local abilities to cope, and where donors were sending such huge sums of money, which had to be spent and which only the larger international organizations had the structures to deal with.

But some recent developments in the humanitarian world were identified as tending to marginalize local agencies still further. One is the attempt to professionalize humanitarianism - the introduction of things like Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) certification and Sphere standards, which local organizations might not be able to, or might not - for cultural or ideological reasons - even want to meet.

“To actually participate, to speak, you have to know the UN language. You have to know the language of the clusters and all the rest of it … That's even if you could get through the door, which is very unlikely because it is in the UN compound. And everything's sent round by email, so if you don't have email you're out of it.”
Another is the UN “cluster” system, a good enough idea attempting to coordinate all the agencies working in particular fields, such as nutrition, water and sanitation, or health. But the result - especially where the UN works out of heavily guarded secure compounds - is that local groups, sometimes quite literally, “can't get a foot in the door”.

Nick Hall, Save the Children's head of Disaster Risk Reduction, says he saw this happening in Haiti. “To actually participate, to speak, you have to know the UN language. You have to know the language of the clusters and all the rest of it, and if you are a local organization speaking Creole French, you haven't got a chance. That's even if you could get through the door, which is very unlikely because it is in the UN compound. And everything's sent round by email, so if you don't have email you're out of it.”

Shame and guilt?

Seeing local colleagues excluded makes many aid workers feel ashamed and guilty, but some spoke up against the easy assumption that local is always best. Fatou Mbow, who has worked for various organizations in West Africa, says that this assumes that there is a local effort to respond to a crisis. In CAR, she says, “it was just a conflict with no government, no civil society, just four million people being invaded by all these people interested in their diamonds.”

In Mali, she says, there were local actors, but there were things which needed doing that they either could not, or would not, do. “It was very difficult. I was working for an organization engaging with local NGOs, but local NGOs didn't want to go to the North, because they said that helping the North was going against Mali, that if we were helping people in the North, in a way we were helping the enemy.”

Other models

Misikir Tilahun, head of programmes at African Humanitarian Action, which is based in Addis Ababa, is generally critical of the traditional Western humanitarian model, which he sees as outdated, self-perpetuating and unable to keep up with a changing world. But even he concedes that there are specific roles which internationals are best placed to fill. “Undoubtedly there are comparative advantages for internationals, nationals and locals,” he says. “For example, protection. Especially in conflict settings maybe there are situations where national actors are not best suited to provide protection to affected communities. And advocacy, for instance. Some governments, especially in middle income countries, are becoming more assertive in saying No to international responses. And if they are vocal in saying No to international bodies, they're even more vocal and authoritarian towards their own civil society organizations.”

One of the factors driving the current round of soul-searching is the fact that a number of recent humanitarian emergencies have taken place in these middle-income countries: conflict in Iraq and Syria, floods in Pakistan, and the dreadful typhoon in the Philippines. All these countries have some capacity for humanitarian response, through either official or voluntary organizations. And some developing countries are now starting work outside their own borders. Their relationship to national governments and local NGOs will be different.

Caroline Reeves, one of the historians at the meeting, has been studying Chinese philanthropy. She told IRIN: “I think that China is going to be on a different trajectory, because China is not coming from a colonial past, which is the past of humanitarianism. And I think that as China moves forward, with their respect for individual sovereignty, which comes from their experience with the colonial enterprise, how they exercise their financial responsibility abroad will be quite different. In the future I believe there will be more private philanthropy reaching out, but right now it's very much the Chinese state reaching out to other states, regardless of their stand on human rights or other issues.”

Misikir Tilahun thinks the days of the Western global aid giants may be numbered. He told IRIN: “We have evidence that humanitarian action is more effective, it saves more lives, when local actors are the first on the scene and coordinate their national response system before even the disaster happens. So from that we can say that local and national disaster response mechanisms should be strengthened; that's where the control mechanisms should lie, with resources coming in from the global level. So the natural conclusion one can make is that these oligopolies should devolve power to the regional and national and local levels, and that necessitates their becoming smaller.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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