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Affected people are mostly missing from the localisation debate. Let’s change that.

‘We don’t have robust findings on how people affected by crisis see the implications of localisation for their welfare, protection, and prospects.’

A U.S. military aircraft drops off aid on Aug. 21, 2021, to Les Anglais, a remote community on Haiti’s southern peninsula that was devastated by the Aug. 14 earthquake.
Voices of people who have experienced crisis — such as the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti, where this aid was delivered — are often absent from the humanitarian sector’s debate on localisation. (Jacqueline Charles/REUTERS)

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Crisis-affected Haitians prefer to receive aid from community-led groups that they see as honest, as treating them respectfully, and as understanding their predicament, they told us during recent research we conducted with The New Humanitarian.

This is a rare example of feedback from affected people about their preferences on who provides aid. For the most part, though, there is little effort across the humanitarian space to gauge the way they view the proposed localisation agenda – which shifts responsibility for aid provision from international to local organisations, a change that could have far reaching repercussions for them.

If we are to put affected people at the centre, they should have a say in who gets to implement aid programmes.

If we are to put affected people at the centre, the goal of the so-called “participation revolution,” they should have a say in who gets to implement aid programmes.

Neglecting affected people’s views on localisation reflects a broader tendency to ignore their perspective in the design and implementation of humanitarian aid programmes. Former UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock left office last year with a high-profile admission that attempts to improve accountability to affected people in humanitarian action hadn’t worked.

It is not easy to find out whether affected people prefer local to international aid providers because the two categories are hard to distinguish from one another. This is because most aid workers whom affected people interact with are the local employees of international agencies or the staff of local organisations contracted to implement the programmes of their international partners.

We don’t have robust findings on how people affected by crisis see the implications of localisation for their welfare, protection, and future prospects.

Then there are those omnipresent agency logos. The team collecting data for us, Ground Truth Solutions (GTS), in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh recently found that Rohingya refugees tended to associate all aid with the organisation that had the most prominent branding in the camps. In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, cash and voucher recipients saw the Afghan government as being behind cash programming rather than the World Food Programme or other organisations that were responsible.

These challenges go some way towards explaining why we don’t have robust findings on how people affected by crisis see the implications of localisation for their welfare, protection, and future prospects. Another reason is that those who dominate the debate – donors, national organisations, and the established aid agencies – have not shown much interest in how affected people see these things. If they did, they might discover that affected people don’t think it makes much difference who implements humanitarian programmes. Or, on the contrary, they might learn that affected people have strong views. Right now, we simply don’t know, although the modest insights that emerge from some GTS survey findings warrant further inquiry.

In a 2017 project that looked at experience implementing the Core Humanitarian Standard by 15 aid organisations in four African and Asian countries, we learned that local organisations were seen by affected people as better at acting on feedback than their international counterparts.

The same year, in research looking at the impact of the reforms set out in the Grand Bargain, a majority of people in four of the six countries included in the study felt more comfortable making a complaint or a suggestion to an international agency than to a local one.

The views of humanitarian field staff are no substitute for the voices of affected people, but the way they see things is closer to realities on the ground than policy deliberations at the global level. Take our 2018 survey, in which we asked national and international aid workers how they saw each other’s contribution. Respondents from national organisations rated their capacity higher and the support they received lower than their international counterparts – though the latter did consider national organisations capable of doing more and thought they should be better funded.

The localisation debate is often framed as an effort to throw off the neo-colonial yoke by shifting more responsibility and funding to local groups. This ignores another interpretation of humanitarianism’s imperial pedigree, which holds that it is affected people who are most subject to neo-colonial attitudes and behaviours. It also overlooks the fact that in refugee situations, local structures may be viewed with fear. And in some places, using community leaders as gatekeepers is highly problematic, especially for women.

The questions thrown up by our admittedly limited research on the way affected people see some aspects of localisation suggest we should put more effort into finding out how they see the impact of this re-visioning of the aid architecture. If we do so, and heed their views, we may discover that humanitarian reform – whether it’s localisation or something else – stands a greater chance of success.


The New Humanitarian collaborated with Ground Truth Solutions on research assessing Haitians’ attitudes toward aid, a project funded by H2H and the Gates Foundation.

Edited by Jessica Alexander

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