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Readers react | EU commissioner’s views on localisation create a stir

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In our recent interview with EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, he addressed not only the EU’s new aid policy, but also localisation, decolonisation, and migration. Some of his statements, especially around localisation, touched a raw nerve. 

Most controversial were his remarks that “there is no issue with localisation” because the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) works through international NGOs with local branches, and that the biggest barrier to localisation is the administrative capacity of local actors when it comes to “accountability, transparency, sound financial management”.

Pressed by The New Humanitarian for clarification during the interview, the commissioner said, “We do believe in the need to have greater involvement of local responders… capacity for [local groups] to respond… is obviously there. And we want to rely on that capacity.” But he went on to reiterate the need for local groups to have greater administrative capacity.

Readers took to social media to share their reactions, calling his views, “infuriating”, “outdated”, and “depressing”. Others wrote to our editors to express their concerns. 

Here’s some of that feedback – both written responses sent to us and reactions found on social media.

Written responses sent to TNH:

“The greatest barrier to localisation is not a lack of local capacity, but a lack of self-awareness [by some international actors].”

- Christina Bennett, CEO of the START Network, a membership of 55 local, national, and international NGOs working across six continents.

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I was frustrated and discouraged to read your interview with European Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, whose views on localisation I found misguided, outdated, and tone deaf to what is a groundswell of heated debate around the importance of local organisations in the future of aid. This was particularly disappointing in light of the EU’s more promising news that it will significantly increase its humanitarian aid funding this year.

First, his approach to meeting the EU’s Grand Bargain localisation commitments by funding the national offices of iNGOs misses the point. The agreement’s original intentions were to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action through fundamental changes in the way aid is organised and implemented, including by scaling up direct funding and support to local organisations to deliver more effective aid. National offices of iNGOs are extensions of organisations with global brands, presence and platforms, whose origins lie elsewhere and whose terms are set far from their national offices. While many believe that iNGOs continue to have a role to play in humanitarian action – very much a live discussion now among the membership of the Start Network – they can all too easily diminish local leadership, agency, and capacity, and crowd out home grown organisations from what is often limited domestic civil society space.

Second, while the UN’s country-based pooled funds have been effective in increasing funding to national and local organisations, they represent a single channel and do not operate in every country with humanitarian risks and needs. Support to CBPFs must be matched with funding to and investment in local and national organisations, both for humanitarian action and to shore up their overheads and core operations. Lenarčič’s implicit assumption that local organisations lack accountability and are higher risk is not borne out by evidence or experience, which sees corruption and fraud across international and local organisations alike. Importantly, working through intermediary funding channels, whether they be pooled funds or international partners also prevents direct engagement between donors and local organisations.

Third, I disagree with Mr. Lenarčič that the largest impediment to localisation is a lack of local capacity. His narrow framing of humanitarian capacity as compliance and risk management neglects critical attributes that local organisations bring to a response: access, presence, acute ability to analyse and understand the local context and to connect with affected people and communities. And his assumption that local organisations lack sound management practices is discriminatory and misinformed. Far from lacking capacity, Start Network national and local members in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, India, and Pakistan have sound financial and operational management systems and close links to communities, demonstrating they can be accountable for the funds they spend and for the impact they have on the people they serve.

Mr. Lenarčič’s views are also not shared by some of his EU colleagues, who are actively funding initiatives that strengthen civil society response for COVID-19 and that directly support local humanitarian leadership and partnership.

In my view, the greatest barrier to localisation is not a lack of local capacity, but a lack of self-awareness by some about how their assumptions and actions perpetuate out-dated systems, matched with a reluctance by many to dismantle the culture and behaviour that preserve them.

A more productive way forward would be direct dialogue between donors and local organisations to bust myths, build trust, and manage risks together. And an open discussion among donors, iNGOs and NNGOs about the risks of not working openly, productively and together.

“At a time when homegrown local/national NGOs are increasingly feeling uncomfortable and marginalised within their own context due to the increasing number of INGO country offices, [the commissioner’s] statement not only legitimises the neo-colonial approach of INGOs, but also discourages advocacy of local actors against such practice.”

- Sudhanshu S. Singh, CEO of Humanitarian Aid International, a global Indian-based NGO.

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While many governments are slashing their aid budgets, the EU has increased its by 60 percent making it the largest humanitarian donor. The EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, made some good points during his interview to The New Humanitarian on this subject, including:

- Underpinning the necessity to expand donor base and address root causes of need including climate change

- Need to address erosion of compliance with International Humanitarian Law

- Use the available budget in a more effective and efficient way by reducing the overhead cost

- Looking into root causes of individual humanitarian crisis to seek long-term solution, and a nexus approach with development, peace and security actors in order to achieve that

The most striking point for me was, ‘humanitarian aid is an emergency relief. It doesn’t solve the crisis; it just alleviates the suffering of the people’. This thinking is required across the humanitarian sector, which is otherwise keeping millions of people on perpetual dependency of humanitarian assistance instead of providing durable solutions to them.

However, the commissioner also made a few worrying points which are quite concerning to local actors like me. For example, in response to the question on localisation, he said, “… a large number of our humanitarian partners – especially the NGOs, international NGOs – do have local branches, so there is no issue with localisation”.

At a time when homegrown local/national NGOs are increasingly feeling uncomfortable and marginalised within their own context due to the increasing number of INGO country offices, such a statement not only legitimises the neo-colonial approach of INGOs, but also discourages advocacy of local actors against such practice.

INGOs, facing a shrinking fundraising base in Global North, have already their fundraising base in growing economies of the Global South, marginalising homegrown organisations within their own context, denying direct access of funding to them available within their own countries and undermining local humanitarian architecture by superimposing their own Western framework. With the recent aid cuts by several countries, the fundraising base expansion by some INGOs is likely to increase. This is why we would expect a body like the EU to stop considering local branches of INGOs as local.

Secondly, he says where branches of INGOs are not present, Country-based Pooled Funds (CBPFs) managed by the United Nations could be used for localisation. However, CBPFs, existing only in 18 countries, have their own limitations, and there is not enough data available in the public domain that these CBPFs provide better access to local/national actors as committed in the IASC Definitions Paper, “Funding channelled through a pooled fund that is directly accessed by national and local actors”.

His statement, “What is actually the biggest barrier to localisation is the capacity of local actors. Most often, the local organisations lack the capacity to fulfil all the criteria with regard to accountability, transparency, sound financial management…” also needs some clarity from a local actor’s perspective.

No single humanitarian organisation, however big and resource-rich it may be, can claim having comprehensive response capacity to any crisis. Capacity can be categorised into two, i.e., response capacity and compliance capacity. While local actors are good with response capacity, they may not be equally good on compliance capacity particularly of the Western donors. Developing and retaining compliance capacity requires regular inflow of funds with proper overhead costs. Most of the local actors are denied that. They are often treated as cheap implementers of the projects funded by international donors or mobilised within their own countries. Therefore, when they are systematically marginalised, they can’t be blamed for not having enough compliance capacity and thereby restricting them to fully realise their response capacity. Poaching of staff from local actors, using them as cheap implementers are a couple of examples that show they have the capacity but not the space and opportunities to build further on that. I feel perhaps donors give more preference to compliance capacity instead of response capacity. What’s more important to save lives and keep responses efficient? Compliance is important and so is the response, and that underlines the need to provide better and direct access of funding to local actors with complementary compliance support from international actors.

I have analysed the systematic marginalisation of local actors within their own context in my paper, ‘If you want to support, vacate the space’.

I was glad to read that Lenarčič would like to see less humanitarian needs, less humanitarian crisis, and less work for his successor. I am afraid that would remain unlikely as long as the UN is considered a symbol of decolonisation and only international actors capable of adhering to humanitarian principles. It’s time to get engaged in discussion directly with local actors. That may help our international counterparts to understand us better and get rid of some perceived barriers. Has the internationally led response yielded desired results? If not, try out local actors and results would not be disappointing.

“We hope that the EU will continue to invest in… solutions that put local leadership, local design and local implementation at the heart of its mechanisms.”

- Hibak Kalfan, Executive Director of the Network for Empowered Aid Response, or NEAR, a movement of local and national Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from the Global South.

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The Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR), a collective of Global South civil society organisations across 43 countries, would like to formally rebut comments made by the EC Representative Janez Lenarčič in an interview conducted by the New Humanitarian.

We appreciate Mr. Lenarčič’s remarks on the European Union’s effort to increase its humanitarian funding and encourage its counterparts not to decrease theirs.

As representatives of Global South local and national civil society, we were extremely disappointed in the response made by Mr. Lenarčič on localisation and decolonisation of aid. As a leading humanitarian donor and Grand Bargain signatory, ECHO has committed to ensuring equitable space and financial support, as directly as possible, to local and national actors in the Global South. Use of language such as international organisations having local branches institutes localisation, or a generalisation of the lack of capacity of local actors (albeit accountability, transparency, and sound financial management), is divisive, undermines years of work and commitment, and ultimately shows a very partial view on the challenges faced by the humanitarian community as a whole. Mr. Lenarčič seems to ignore commonly agreed definitions and is ultimately pigeon-holing an entire part of the humanitarian community against equity of representation and resources.

It is important to recognise the fundamental differences of national branches of International Organisations, which institute a smaller fraction of actors (possibly hundreds) versus the thousands of diverse CSOs, which build, defend, strengthen, nurture, and grow with their communities to ensure that they are prepared for any form of crisis, remain resilient, and continue to operate in times of peace. NEAR represents hundreds of organisations which are direct recipients of traditional and non-traditional aid funding through humanitarian and development financing (including the European Union/DEVCO). In the last several years, NEAR and many other organisations have worked with various partners to advocate for diverse and innovative financing towards localised approaches. Such statements can easily deter the hard work that hundreds of local and international practitioners have spent years developing. While internationally-led pooled funds, such as the CBPF, are a useful tool, a number of alternative, successful localised financing approaches exist. These operate using existing community philanthropy, activist funds and others which NEAR has discovered is a hidden, siloed ecosystem, founded on trust, local resource mobilisation and access to local CSO/CBOs. We hope that the EU will continue to invest in such solutions that put local leadership, local design and local implementation at the heart of its mechanisms.

Finally, it is important to recognise, contrary to Mr. Lenarčič’s comments, a recent communication to the EU Parliament on EU’s Humanitarian Action: New challenges, Same principles; highlights a number of possible actions from the EU to mitigate its legal barriers to localisation and recognise its limitations. It puts the emphasis on several points, focusing on various instruments that would favour the engagement and leadership of local actors in funding mechanisms and more broadly in the humanitarian system. We look forward to similar rhetoric and more importantly, action by the European Union and other ODA donors.

“We appreciate that the European Commission – and indeed all of the INGOs that they work through – have good intentions, but we can no longer define ‘capacity’ – or success, trustworthiness, or effectiveness – through only Global North eyes.”

- Firelight Foundation Team*, A charity supporting community-based organisations (CBOs) in eastern and southern Africa.

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It might come as a surprise but it was with extraordinary shock and sadness that many of us read “A Q&A with the world’s biggest aid donor” in the March 11, 2021 edition of the New Humanitarian.

Yes – it is welcome that Janez Lenarčič, who runs emergency response for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office called on other donors – “This is not the time to cut the aid budgets, this is a time to increase them”. And there is no question that we should welcome the European Commission’s commitment to the Grand Bargain and to increasing the European Union’s humanitarian aid budget.

What shocked us were the deeply offensive – and dare we say – neo-colonial – declarations that (1) “there is no issue with localisation…” because “a large number of our humanitarian partners – especially the NGOs, international NGOs – do have local branches…” and (2) “What is actually the biggest barrier to localisation is the capacity of local actors. Most often, the local organisations lack the capacity to fulfill all the criteria with regard to accountability, transparency, sound financial management…”

We appreciate that the European Commission – and indeed all of the INGOs that they work through – have good intentions, but we can no longer define “capacity” – or success, trustworthiness, or effectiveness – through only Global North eyes.

Despite substantial investments over many years in development efforts, it is an open question as to whether large development projects initiated by Global North donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have resulted in meaningful and lasting change at the community level. In many cases, there has even been unintentional harm incurred to communities and local civil society by the disruption of local economic and social systems. Often, this has been directly a result of top-down and externally defined agendas and priorities being imposed on local communities. To make matters worse, very little development or humanitarian funding actually reaches local organisations and even less reaches community-based organisations (CBOs). Moreover, those funds or projects that do reach the community level have been critiqued for treating CBOs as vehicles to carry out predetermined donor agendas or INGO programs – the effects of which often fade away soon after external funding is withdrawn.

There is increasing recognition that in order for change in the Global South to be relevant, impactful, and sustained in the long term, it must be led by those who are affected by the issues at hand – people, families, communities, local leaders, practitioners, activists, and grassroots community organisations – in the Global South.

In order to support long-term change at the community level, the philanthropy and global development sectors must learn from and support Global South community leaders’ analyses of the issues, their determined strategies, their visions of success, their indicators of effectiveness, and what they need in terms of help and support.

The global development sector has tended to see local organisations as lacking in capacity and risky because it frames success and effectiveness according to Global North funders’ and INGOs' values and perspectives. For example, most global development and humanitarian responses focus on number of beneficiaries reached, cost per beneficiary, low overheads, and evidence of certain inputs predictably and linearly resulting in certain outputs/outcomes. Our definitions of success & effectiveness are shaped by our positioning, our worldview, our training, and our experience. Global North funders' definitions of success & effectiveness are not inherently right or correct – and can actually be quite limiting & harmful.

Communities, activists, practitioners, and leaders in the Global South define impact and success in different ways – such as lasting, transformative change at the community level that is owned and driven by communities themselves. If funders and INGOs continue to use only their own lenses, important dimensions and understandings of success, impact, sustainability, and effectiveness are missed. Moreover, this has critical implications for whether and to what extent CBOs are viewed by funders and INGOs as effective, strategic, impactful, and worthy and respected partners.

For sustained, systemic change to be a reality, the global development community must recognise and value the role and potential of organisations that are supported from within communities. Based most often at the intersection of family, society, government and community leadership at all levels, entities like local non-profit organisations and community-based organisations (CBOs) are uniquely positioned to support lasting social change. Borne out of a desire to help and born from community themselves, CBOs are deeply attuned to their communities and so have the capacity to look at the root causes of major challenges and to facilitate changes from within, to lasting, multi-generational effect. CBOs are also well positioned to build and maintain strong linkages between formal and informal systems of change – engaging children, youth, families, communities, traditional leaders, informal systems, and formal systems such as governments in a process of long-term social development.

It is unconscionable that, in this 21st century, entities such as the European Commission… continue to devalue the management [of local organisations] as untrustworthy, their operations as too risky. There is no “risk” with funding local organisations – it is only our white supremacist perspective that leads us in the Global North to perceive that a locally-led (likely Black or brown-led) organisation is a “risk”.

The idea that Global North-led organisations can be the primary protagonists in “localising” is deeply flawed and another indicator of a lack of awareness around how deeply white supremacist global development and humanitarian aid is.

Localisation is not a “trend” or an “outcome” that can be achieved by outside-in actors – it is an ethical and moral perspective that local agency is critical in human development. Localisation is not something that can or should be achieved by Global North-led organisations. An organisation run from the Global North will fundamentally never be local (this is true for our own organisation – Firelight – as well).

The goal should be for Global North-led organisations to move out of the way or to at least take an allyship role in favour of the primacy of locally born, raised, and led organisations, technical approaches, research techniques, paedagogical frameworks, practices, knowledge, and agency. (Indeed there are many good examples of when INGOs have done this.) The goal should NOT be for Global North organisations to decide they need local teams in order to achieve their Global North-designed programmes, based on Global North development research and paradigms.

Global North development actors and those who fund them are coming to realise that neo-colonial and white supremacist perspectives and behaviours have never been appropriate and are no longer going to be accepted in the 21st century. We hope that the European Commission joins them in changing its perspective too.

- *The Firelight Foundation Team is: Tomaida Banda, Adelia Barros Parker, Nina Blackwell, Dua Kazimoto, Ruth Kenyah, Ronald Kimambo, Jim Laske, Debbie Murchison, Carolyne Ng’eny, Sadaf Shallwani, and Jane Stokes

“The commissioner uses more entries in the Northern donor playbook to undermine its Southern counterparts than ever before.”

- Themrise Khan, Independent Researcher and Policy Analyst based in Pakistan.

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The EU commissioner’s comments prove many clearly established tropes about how rich Northern powers look down on the less powerful (and the less white). Beginning with his comments on localisation being equal to the "local branch" of an INGO, to "local organisations lack the capacity to fulfill all the criteria with regard to accountability, transparency, sound financial management”, to calling the UN a "symbol of decolonisation", to perhaps the most insulting comment, that "you cannot imagine being further from colonial mentality than in what we do as the European Union in humanitarian aid", the commissioner uses more entries in the Northern donor playbook to undermine its Southern counterparts than ever before.

It seems the EU is terribly misinformed and misguided regarding a system that has been controlling the world's development cooperation and humanitarian aid for decades. The Grand Bargain, for instance, defines localisation not as a McDonalds, like a franchise of an international company, but as one that is indigenously founded by and rooted in the recipient country. These organisations do not lack any "capacity" to follow the EU's accountability or transparency guidelines. They are all perfectly capable of managing themselves. It is the guidelines themselves that are set solely and imposed by the donor that both delay and detract from true development in many countries. It also establishes clearly that it is the donor that is setting the rules which others are compelled to follow and have no space to manoeuvre in. This is clearly not solidarity, but an imposition.

Using the taxpayer argument that many Northern donors use is also particularly harmful to development assistance as it goes against the "two-way street" claim the commissioner makes about aid. It instead puts the onus of aid solely on the shoulders of the recipients without ever including them in the decisions made about them. On the migration side, making inferences such as "those who are not entitled to international protection cannot stay in Europe” in the context of international refugees and asylum seekers is in itself a way to close doors on refugees from many countries the EU does not wish to entertain. Many of these misguided statements unfortunately contradict the claim that "we are the number one humanitarian donor in the world". Humanitarian principles require collaboration, cooperation, and joint planning and design. They can never be an imposition by only one party. Otherwise, it’s almost a form of ransomware rather than an act of compassionate obligation.

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