Decolonisation and localisation: new dawn or old history?

Here in ALNAP we have been mulling over the new zeitgeist for localisation and decolonisation in the humanitarian sector which have been discussed in the WHAF Aid Re-imagined Global Summit, OCHA’s launch events for the Global Humanitarian Overview 2021 and the New Humanitarian’s podcast series on ‘Rethinking Humanitarianism.’

Lively discussion is taking place and new initiatives are emerging in the vacuum created by the absence of international staff on the ground; including local leadership; citizens’ assemblies managing aid at the point of crisis; local groups networked for better coordination and fundraising; more influence of diaspora groups, mutual aid arrangements between communities and a steady increase in cash-based programming.

For us one key question came to mind: 

Does this herald a new dawn for humanitarianism or is old history just repeating itself?

The long history of decolonisation and localisation in humanitarianism

The desire to decolonise aid is certainly not new. Caroline Moorhead has described how the tide of political activism in the late 1960s influenced a younger generation of professionals in the League of Red Cross/Crescent Societies, many of them scarred by the Nigeria/Biafra war and determined to ‘slough off a colonial mantle,’ which they saw as the unfortunate legacy of its founders. Finland and Belgium went on record to criticise a ‘paternalistic attitude’, and the President of the Norwegian Red Cross went so far as to question whether the modern world really needed the Red Cross at all.  

This led to what became known as the ‘Big Evaluation’ (1974) led by CIDA’s Donald Tansley which took in 45 countries. Few expected critical results but Tansley defied expectations and presented what the Joint President of the International Committee described as a ‘pitiless inquisition’. What followed is too long a story to summarise here, but the report is said to have sunk in ‘a morass of differing opinions, prickly feeling and vested interests.’ Not much progress there then.

And of course, localisation in humanitarian action is hardly new either. The seminal books of Robert Chambers, Mary Anderson and others in the 1980/90’s brought the issue to light and later it was crystalised in a single sentence by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition’s (TEC) iconic recommendation: ‘the international humanitarian community needs a fundamental re-orientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating community’s own relief and recovery priorities’ (2005).

"overall, it is hard to see much progress after the TEC recommendation"

Despite high-level endorsement for the recommendation, including from President Bill Clinton, the evaluations of the Haiti Earthquake (2010) and Cyclone Haiyan (2013) revealed similar shortcomings. The international humanitarian system seemed to have an inbuilt propensity to position itself at the centre of the crisis without fully appreciating local capacities, idioms and culture. Having said that, some incremental improvements were noticed, especially in the Philippines and to a modest extent these have continued - but overall, it is hard to see much progress after the TEC recommendation, even today.

So, is old history about to repeat itself? Once the pandemic is under control, will international staff return to the field with their shiny land cruisers? Will remote management tools be put back on the shelf to gather dust? And will the internationals reclaim their place at the centre of crises, just like before?

Perhaps. But there are at least 3 important differences today which cast the current situation in a new light.

The first is that changes are already underway because of the spaces opened up by the absence of international staff on the ground. An atmosphere of experimentation has emerged and new ways of doing things are being encouraged and remotely supported by internationals. In a global crisis, the boundaries between the givers and receivers become more blurred and there is a greater sense of shared crisis. The ‘they’ have now become the ‘we.’

Secondly, online platforms have transformed communication and connections in the international humanitarian community. In December last year, I attended four prominent online conferences in which many hundreds of people took part from around the globe, many of them asking for, or demanding, change. Policy debate has suddenly been opened up and ‘democratised’ and it seems that the old way of creating policy behind closed doors has changed irreconcilably.

Thirdly, like winds of change that gusted into the Red Cross from civil rights movements in the 1960s, the current Black Lives Matter movement is filling humanitarian sails and providing a more fertile atmosphere for change. 

The key point is that the current drivers of change are external. Opportunities for locally-led aid have been created and international movements and the online universe are providing amplification and increased momentum. This is unprecedented as prior to these shifts, change has been internally created through endless organisational change processes in individual agencies and collectively through UN reform processes, both of which can be painful and ponderous, generally failing to bring about transformational effects.  

Humanitarian history tells us that the system is not good at instigating its own changes; and history in general suggests change happens due to external shocks when people and systems must change to survive.

Are we seeing real structural change?

But how deep do the current changes go? The reality is that despite all the new activities, the essential structure of the international humanitarian system is unchanging. Indeed, the architecture has been largely unchanged for decades and many people take the view that power and control is securely locked into its very structure. The lion’s share of traceable funding comes from about ten bilateral and multi-lateral donors, and half of this goes to UN agencies. Most of the rest is shared between the large international NGOs and the Red Cross/Crescent Movement. Despite aspirations at the World Humanitarian Summit, direct funding to local agencies remains low.

Donors need to be accountable to their parliaments and the taxpayers who pay for international aid, and consequently their risk threshold is low.

Whilst elements of the humanitarian business model have been affected by the pandemic, deeper structural change is unlikely to happen any time soon. Donors need to be accountable to their parliaments and the taxpayers who pay for international aid, and consequently their risk threshold is low. The reliance on well-established partners with known brands is likely to resume, as will the reliance on pass-through arrangements from internationals to local partners. And the (welcome) early signs from the new American administration suggest a renewed commitment to rebuilding multilateralism – so, if anything, the UN can expect increased funding.

All of this adds up to a complicated and partly contradictory picture. Locally-led initiatives are happening in the gaps created by external shocks, but the essential architecture is inherently locked with few incentives to modify or adapt. Although the system continues to save many lives, it can be characterised by a kind of ‘functioning inertia’ which is resistant to transformative improvements.

Which all goes to say that we are indeed waking up to a new dawn, but a dawn darkened by the seemingly immovable grey clouds of history. What kind of day will eventually break is still difficult to forecast.