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Localisation only pays lip service to fixing aid’s colonial legacy

‘When I read organisations’ policies and objectives for localisation, I can’t help but feel I somehow missed the train when it came to conceiving them.’

A Lebanese volunteer sorts through donations at a stall offering emergency relief in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August 2020. But who exactly is “local” when it comes to aid's localisation agenda?
A Lebanese volunteer sorts through donations at a stall offering emergency relief in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August 2020. But who exactly is “local” when it comes to aid's localisation agenda? (Hannah McKay/REUTERS )

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“Localisation” has become a ubiquitous term among humanitarians in recent years, used to refer to putting more power and funding in the hands of “local responders”. The term is simple, it feels good, and is a convenient response to increasing calls for the aid sector to decolonise. 

But instead of shaking the whole temple of power, which is what a sincere attempt at decolonisation requires, the international sector attempts a gentler approach, tip-toeing around the heart of the issue: the deep-rooted racism and ongoing legacies of colonialism. Based on my experience of “localisation”, the sector is getting it wrong

Last year, I was invited to talk on a UN panel at a global event focused on localising humanitarian response, one of many that has taken place since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, where the term became mainstream as a key pillar of the so-called Grand Bargain.

The experience prompted me to reconsider this proliferating concept, and the use of the term itself, and to reflect on how undermining it is to those of us working in our home countries. 

I am a scholar who has lived over half my life in Lebanon and much of the rest of it in the United Kingdom. I was born in Lebanon, but I’ve never considered myself as “a local”, especially if that is supposed to mean representing all local Lebanese people. It always feels strange when I’m described as one, and even stranger when I’m invited to events under this label. It’s as if I’m being assigned a new positionality that I neither asked for nor can relate to.

“Localisation often implies this reductionist understanding of who is local.”

When I’m asked to play this role – and to speak on behalf of all local colleagues – my instinct is to denounce this positionality. It feels artificial, somewhat theatrical, as if we are playing a part – not expected to challenge the notion of localisation itself, but rather to focus solely on how to promote and implement it. 

Personally, I believe I have other, more interesting identities and experiences to bring to the conversation than my geographical background. Yet, to the international aid organisations, or those considered “non-local” in the sector, my identity politics is what’s most interesting. 

My representation of other locals is never questioned, while to many Lebanese, being educated in elite universities in the United Kingdom, and having never spent time in informal tented settlements or camps, I’m hardly a local. Localisation often implies this reductionist understanding of who is local, excluding those most disadvantaged – who arguably need their voices heard most – and empowering others like me. I don’t know what it means to live in those places and experience those people’s lives, so how can I be expected to speak on their behalf?  

‘I am the anecdotes’

Even if I accept the premise, when I read organisations’ policies and objectives for localisation, I can’t help but feel I somehow missed the train when it came to conceiving them. All that’s left for “locals” like me is to get on board with their implementation. The image of Sykes-Picot – a private wartime treaty between Britain and France to determine the partition of Arab Middle East lands – comes to my mind. I feel not much has changed concerning our role when it comes to contributing to the bigger picture. 

During this particular panel, I was invited to present my organisation’s research findings on Lebanon, but I was only asked to talk about Lebanon as a case study  without  extrapolating these findings or contributing to the overall theoretical conclusions. That was done by the internationals who were on the panel. I realised then what kind of knowledge production was being asked of me: I am the case study; I am the anecdotes. I am the localised knowledge and experience, but my contribution ends there. 

In my experience, when international aid organisations want to discuss localisation, locals from the Global South are invited to talk among themselves about how things are going for them.  Many of us stick to the script for fear of losing funding, jobs, or status, or simply for fear of seeming impolite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have the space to discuss and reflect, but I often wonder – are there no “locals” in the Global North? 

“If localisation is to be anything more than just a buzzword and tokenism, it must include people from the Global South.”

The discrimination goes even further. As a ‘“local scholar”, those like me from Lebanon will often not meet the eligibility criteria of being the Principal Investigator on many Global North-centric research proposals. In some projects, we are even recruited as co-investigators as a tokenistic gesture to show diversity and inclusiveness. 

I often wonder if our place is to operate only in the Global South. I recently applied to conduct research on refugees' experiences in Germany. I wasn’t granted permission from the local government authorities. We were given many excuses, such as data protection regulations, but I can only conclude it was because my institution was from the Global South. After several futile attempts to pursue our project, we had to give up.

We have a saying in Arabic that goes, “everyone needs to know their place”.  Localisation seems to be the new project from the Global North reminding us to “know our place”. 

If localisation is to be anything more than just a buzzword and tokenism, it must include people from the Global South, from the conception of an idea right through to execution – whether that’s research, programme response, or policy development. It requires breaking the moulds in the current structures that limit “local” actors like me to the margins: grant eligibility and funding criteria; the application processes; the institutional and academic hierarchies. These structures remain biased and colonial, and they limit the will, vision, voices, and participation of those who are disadvantaged by the system.

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