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Local aid groups are paving the way for progress on their terms. Internationals need to follow their lead.

‘Remaking humanitarian action is not about big gestures or grand commitments, but deliberate and practical steps.’

Pictured is a cooling facility set up by the Bright Star Development Society Balochistan in response to last summer's deadly heat wave in Pakistan. The station is a tent with two signs to each side of it. Centred we see a man walking out of the tent with a cup of water on the right hand and a hen in the other. Pictured behind him are other men sitting and another person getting water at the water cooler. ©2021 GLOW Consultants
A cooling facility set up by the Bright Star Development Society Balochistan in response to last summer's deadly heat wave in Pakistan – just one example of the many community-led aid projects that have been making a difference around the globe.

While the international aid system continues to be dragged down by its own inertia, local organisations are not standing still.

I recently attended a week-long meeting of 18 local and national organisations from around the globe in Nairobi, Kenya. As a long-time professional in the aid industry, I found the meeting inspiring – not only for the momentum generated by an ambitious group of local leaders, but for their focus on creative problem-solving and practical action. 

They are successfully funding their own activities. Ready Pakistan, a joint initiative among communities, civil society, and the government, raised €1.2 million to respond to the catastrophic flooding in Sindh and Balochistan last summer. Somali Humanitarian Hub, led by a group of local and national organisations has already allocated $4.5 million for early response ahead of this year’s dry season. Using hard-won core funds, Yuganter, a local group that works on disaster risk reduction in India, built a website and shored up its finance and data security systems, improving its visibility and eligibility for new finance. It has since secured multi-year contracts from multiple donors.

Local groups are breaking through bureaucratic roadblocks. In contrast to other country-based pooled funds, in 2021, Start Network’s local pooled fund in Bangladesh gave 100% of its resources directly to local organisations. Since its inception in 2017, it has allocated nearly £9 million to local groups.

Meanwhile, international and national partners in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Pakistan are splitting indirect costs. Together, they have initiated local due diligence processes that are more aligned with in-country financial controls and more proportionate to what smaller organisations are able to manage. At the same time, they’re reducing the bureaucracy and costs of compliance processes through passporting of due diligence across partners.

Across the globe, local organisations are self-organising into networks and coalitions, setting their vision, designing programmes, and drafting their own charters and partnership agreements that make explicit what equity of governance, branding, intellectual property, risk, and revenue-sharing looks like on their terms.

These initiatives are in contrast to the disappointing read-out of progress on the seven-year old Grand Bargain commitments, renewed for a second time in Geneva last week.

Indeed, the international sector has plenty of reports, commitments, and good intentions: the Grand Bargain, the Charter 4 Change, the Alliance for Empowering Partnership, the CHS Alliance, the #ShiftThePower movement, and the Pledge for Change – all recognising the sector’s major shortcomings and power issues, and championing wholesale reform.

Each offers progressive, achievable recommendations. And yet, reports around the international aid sector’s actual progress are decidedly unimpressive.

“Leading by example, local organisations are demonstrating what change looks like through practical action. The international community can follow their lead. ”

In practice, the international response to COVID-19, to the conflict in Ukraine, and to the Türkiye-Syria earthquake show the international community’s inability to “let go” in support of local responders with more proximity, contextual expertise, longevity, and, often, legitimacy.

In short, we know what to do. We just don’t do it. 

I’ve been in the aid system long enough to have lived the system’s dysfunction in practice. Over time, my conviction in a reform agenda has grown, but I am also humbled by what it takes to change a system. It turns out it’s much easier to write reports than to implement the recommendations in them. It’s also much easier to commit to change than to make change happen.

Leading by example, local organisations are demonstrating what change looks like through practical action. The international community can follow their lead. 

First, let go of power and control by acting as funding intermediaries, as grant holders and programme hosts where needed, as technical advisers when asked, as advocates and allies when invited, brokering direct relationships with public and private donors and mentoring them to make those funding relationships sustainable. This does not mean nationalising INGO country offices and franchising international brands, which only further consolidates international power and leaves local organisations struggling for influence and resources.

Next, abandon the pursuit of growth and visibility in favour of business and financial models that position international organisations as service providers that are able to fill gaps, lend expertise, operate flexibly, and act as humanitarian safety nets – stepping in where governments are unable or unwilling and when local organisations need surge and support. Such a complementary role will mean the remits and footprints of international organisations change and scale back.

Finally, adopt a new approach to risk management that values the capabilities of local organisations, supports their own efforts to strengthen their operations, and reduces the bureaucracy and cost of compliance. The disproportionate asks of locals by donors and international aid organisations around risk and compliance accountability represent the largest blockers to localisation and the most visible and tangible manifestations of the power imbalances in aid. 

The case for change is clear. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has more than doubled in the last five years to more than 400 million, and conflict and climate are expected to drive those numbers even higher. We in the international aid sector need to recognise that our inability to change the way we work will have consequences in human terms.

Remaking humanitarian action is not about big gestures or grand commitments, but deliberate and practical steps. Local aid groups continue to show that localisation is not an agenda or a buzzword – it means action. It’s time for the international aid sector to step up and follow their lead.

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