Voices from the field – A discussion night in The Hague

Discussion night Humanity House
Foto: Oxfam

Challenging the power balance in localizing humanitarian aid

One and a half year after the signing the Charter4Change, Oxfam Novib invited local humanitarian actors to discuss the changes in localization so far. Humanitarian needs around the world are immense and ever increasing. Providing people in need with the necessary assistance to overcome disasters means the localization agenda is now more urgent than ever. This October during a discussion night at the Humanity House in The Hague, in cooperation with the Dutch knowledge platform on humanitarian aid, local humanitarian actors took the stage and shared their experiences and visions.

Those in need are provided with better services when emergency aid is delivered by those with local expertise. Local humanitarian actors have many advantages over international organizations: they understand the local context, have long partnerships with other actors such as the local government, and often know the people personally. Still, almost all funding goes to international organization and only 0,2% to national and local NGOs directly. And while local actors are always the first responders, there is an overall believe among governments around the world that response work is done by expats and international organizations.

The problem of visibility and credibility

Humanitarian systems are built around that preconception, explains Paparu Liliane Obiale of CEFORD – an Ugandan community based organization: “Penetrating the system is challenging for us. For us it’s not about grabbing the power, but to request empowerment so that we can move the process of localization further.”

Whether its access to knowledge, capacity, resources or funding – the gap between local actors and INGO’s seems far from balanced. Take for instance the visibility of donors to Nepal after the floods. Despite being the biggest donor to Nepal, India was not included in the reported overviews. Being excluded from communicated data is also experienced by CEFORD, despite providing assistance to thousands of refugees.

Need for stronger partnerships

Dr Ehsanur Rahman Dhaka Ahsania Mission in Bangladesh points out that despite a visibility and credibility issue, local actors have proven time and again that they can act quick and reach the most affected people: “It’s about sharing responsibility and decide together about the roles everyone can play based on the respective competencies.”

Rahman has been actively involved in institutionalizing an alliance of first responders in Bangladesh. This initiative was established not only to expand the role of local actors, but to form a stronger partnership with each other and local governments during emergencies.

This approach has also been adopted by local actors in India. Sudhansu Singh of Humanitarian Aid International in India explains that “we have a greater say when local actors work in partnership.”

Changing the way of funding

Power within the humanitarian sector manifests itself in terms of access, funding, visibility and being part of so-called global initiatives or global processes. But Singh points out that ‘global’ in these forums usually stands for Northern countries or OECD countries.

Funds are usually managed by the United Nations (UN). Other large funding organizations such as DFID and USAID usually divide their budget among INGO’s. And ECHO only awards emergency aid funding to INGO’s. This leaves local actors only in a position of only being able, at best, to accept sub contracts.

Kevin Lee of Philippine based organization A Single Drop, urges his counterparts to claim a seat at the table when it’s not given: “We need to realize and understand that humanitarian local response is more effective, saves more lives and improves more lives.” Lee believes that despite the international players having the money, local organizations underestimate the power they hold: “Strength is not only calculated by money. We need to push back. We need to change the way how we are funded instead of just being sub-contracted.”

On the Charter4Change:
Under the lead of Smruti Patel of the Global Mentoring Initiative, local actors from around the globe shared their experiences of what could be done to commit to realizing a more empowered position in the humanitarian sector for local actors. The Charter4Change has been signed by over 120 local NGO’s from 37 countries and 27 international organizations.


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