From the ground up: Inside the push to reshape aid

A teacher stands in front of students sitting on the floor, actively engaged. Alphabet and learning charts and chalk boards line the wall. Jason Patinkin/TNH
A teacher instructs a class of Rohingya students at a makeshift school run by CODEC, a local NGO, in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

In 2016, dozens of the world’s largest donors and humanitarian groups pledged to put more power – and funding – in the hands of local aid groups. But reforms have been slow.

When crises hit, local aid work is often overshadowed by UN agencies and big international aid groups – who receive the bulk of donor funding and largely control how it’s used.

But away from the spotlight, local people are already tackling crises where they live: grassroots NGOs in conflict zones that are off limits to international aid groups; village leaders preparing for disasters in remote areas where the humanitarian sector can’t reach; doctors and nurses, educators, local leaders, traditional aid workers, and everyday volunteers responding to emergencies in their own communities.

With humanitarian needs soaring and donor funding struggling to keep pace, local aid workers believe they are the key to a more sustainable future for humanitarian response. But is the global aid sector prepared to change?

Here’s an overview of the push to reshape aid, and stories from our continuing coverage of local humanitarian response on the front lines of crises around the world.

What is local aid?

The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.

Why local aid?

The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2019, UN-led appeals asked for a record $28.1 billion to cover the world's emergencies. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.



The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.

Who are local aid workers?

Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, host communities, and everyday volunteers.

What is the aid community saying?

The broader aid sector has struggled to define what a shift to “localisation” means in practice, and how to balance the roles of local aid responders with international donors and humanitarian groups.

Critics of the “localisation” agenda question whether local aid organisations can always adhere to the humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality, particularly in conflict zones. Many donors have also been reluctant to directly fund local NGOs, instead opting to work through intermediaries like the major international aid groups. When funding does reach the ground, it is often earmarked for short-term projects.

Local aid organisations say they’re in a constant struggle to survive. They’re asking for stable, longer-term funding that will allow them to grow and sustain local expertise.

Money is important, but it’s not the only factor. Local leaders say they want a greater role in making decisions. They’re also asking for help to build skills and expertise on the ground, so that grassroots groups will be better equipped to lead in future emergencies.

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