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Foreign aid workers and local NGOs – mending the relationship

Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers uses a megaphone to disseminate the warning signals for cyclone among the villagers. Sonagazi, Bangladesh Yoshi Shimizu/IFRC
In a humanitarian crisis, should aid agencies be working through local partners? Does it make their aid more appropriate, more effective, better value for money? Or are they better off just doing it themselves?

A new survey on partnering in emergencies, entitled Missed Opportunities, looks at the benefits, but also some of the challenges of working through local partners.

The study draws on the experience of the five major agencies which commissioned it (Christian Aid, CAFOD, Oxfam, Tearfund and ActionAid) and their partners in the field - normally local NGOs - in four recent emergencies - the conflict in North Kivu, the earthquake in Haiti, the food crisis in East Africa and the floods in Pakistan.

The biggest benefit found, perhaps not surprisingly, was in increasing the relevance and appropriateness of their aid, an area where big international agencies sometimes struggle. Partners are much more likely to know what people need and who the priority beneficiaries should be. Because they speak the language and come from the same culture, they spot things that might otherwise be overlooked; one example cited in the study comes from Haiti, where a local NGO partner set up communal kitchens, because they knew how little space the displaced people had for cooking, and how dangerous lots of small fires could be in a tented camp under plastic sheeting.

Partners can also improve the speed of response. They do not have to fly in from the other side of the world, but are already there when there is a sudden emergency, and can work in situations which would be difficult for outsiders, whether for political reasons, as in Burma/Myanmar, or for security reasons, as in Somalia.

But their staff do not always have the skills that are needed, and the first days of an emergency are not the moment to start training them. And they do not normally get included in coordination mechanisms like the UN's cluster system.

Then there is the question of whether they are cheaper. Ben Ramalingam, who was the lead author of the study, says: “This is a big issue, especially in the UK with its strong value-for-money agenda. Yes, they can show cost savings, especially on staff costs and the cost of putting boots on the ground. But there are also costs to doing partnerships, costs associated with setting them up and supporting them.”

This was one of the issues raised at a meeting to discuss the study at London's Overseas Development Institute. It is a sore point that donors are keen to see more use of partners because they are seen as providing good value, but investing in partnerships usually has to be paid for out of agencies' own resources. It is not something which is budgeted for when funds are given in response to humanitarian crises.

But the UK Department of International Development's head of humanitarian response, Dylan Winder, said he accepted that you needed to invest in capacity before the event, and his department might be sympathetic to requests for this kind of funding. “DFID doesn't really have the staff to engage in partnerships itself with lots of small organizations,” he said. “But if you can show that supporting partnerships would be value for money, I don't see why DFID wouldn't be prepared to fund it. We are up for the challenge of how to do this effectively.”

Who to partner with?

Another issue which aroused a lot of interest was which organizations to choose as partners. One of the points raised in the study was that partner NGOs were generally quite small, and could not deliver assistance or handle funding on a large scale. And yet it was rare for international agencies to enter into partnerships with the kind of developing country institutions which do work on a large scale, like BRAC, the Bangladesh-based NGO, or the humanitarian agencies of national governments.

Out of the five agencies which commissioned the study, three are faith-based - Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund. Helen Stawski, who co-chairs the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, said that since many possible partners in the developing world are faith-based organizations, shared religious belief does provide a kind of glue which strengthen partnerships. But she suggests that the whole issue of faith is a bit of an “elephant in the room”, glaringly present, but something that most aid agencies try to avoid.

She told IRIN: “They look for local NGOs that look like international NGOs, but I'm interested also in indigenous, faith-based expressions of society. They do have capacity, but it's a different sort of capacity and their accountability comes through relationships. We talk about `community based organizations' and `leaders with influence in the community', but often community leaders are religious leaders.”

Stawski says it makes no sense to avoid these as partners. “There are concerns about proselytizing, and there have been a few cases where aid has been used in an inappropriate way to encourage conversion, but the fear of this is far greater than the reality. Also there is an attitude, `We can't partner with your church because then we would have to partner with all the other faiths', but this kind of attitude seems superficial and rather misses the point. What we are looking for is capacity, who can have the most effect.”

UK-based NGO Islamic Relief were mentioned in the context of the food crisis in East Africa, and how collaborating with them had enabled non-Muslim agencies to tap into their network of local partnerships in Muslim areas to increase access.

Politics can also be a barrier. ActionAid CEO Richard Miller cites the Eritrean and Tigrean relief operations run out of Sudan during the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s as an example of how effective developing country organizations can be. “It was a complete alternative operation,” he said, “running successfully and at huge scale, and all done by local people.”

Yet those operations, run by the humanitarian wings of the EPLF and TPLF rebel movements were highly political and have been accused of using aid to fund the war effort. “There are differences of opinion about how politicized aid can be,” Miller told IRIN, “as we see in Syria now. But aid is part of a whole mix. Some standards have to be followed, but the consequence of not working with such organizations is also political. It can be messy, but it's only by engaging that we can continue to solve problems.”


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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