Localisation re-imagined: Three dimensions of localisation

‘Localisation re-imagined’ is ALNAP’s six-part essay series on locally-led humanitarian action authored by Arbie Baguios, founder and researcher at Aid Re-imagined. Each of the essays explores a dichotomy of the localisation debate.

In this article, Arbie explains three dimensions of localisation that can be used to characterise the international humanitarian system’s engagement with local actors: resources, agency and ways of being.

Localisation is desirable; many – if not most – in the humanitarian sector already agree. However, as I attempted to show in my previous essays, because of diverging views on how it can be realised, there is a real risk that the radical spirit of localisation as envisioned and demanded by local actors is diluted. That can happen if we work in such a way that promotes a type of localisation that focuses on localising the sector rather than one that genuinely supports local solutions. But what, exactly, explains the difference between these two ‘types’ of localisation?

Looking back at the two previous articles – ‘Fertilising the soil of state-led solutions’ and ‘Regenerating the polyculture of humanitarianism’ – it is possible to draw out some emerging themes that could help answer the question.

The type of localisation that localises the sector funds and supports national/local actors but often only for those that operate in a certain way – for instance, formal NGOs with documented processes and policies; and within certain parameters, such as ‘humanitarian’ activities/projects only, using defined sectors or best practice templates, specifying procedures like due diligence and contracting.

The type of localisation that supports local solutions, on the other hand, is more agnostic about ways of working and parameters. Supporting local solutions means recognising that national/local actors – however they might look – have the potential to prevent, survive, recover from, and thrive after a crisis. The role of international actors in this model, is primarily to support national or local actors to exercise that potential.

How best might these differences be framed so that it is possible to understand and possibly measure them? I propose that these differences can be framed via three dimensions of localisation: resources, agency and ways of being.

In this article, I will explore these three dimensions of localisation through a series of cases. But first, in the context of a sector already saturated with so-called dimensions and other indicators, I will take a moment to clarify how the three dimensions I propose are distinct from existing localisation indicators, and the value they add, by framing the different ‘types’ of localisation via these dimensions.

Means to achieving higher-level ends

Localisation frameworks with measurable indicators already exist: for example, Van Brabant and Patel’s emerging indicators for localisation; NEAR Network’s localisation performance framework; the Pathway to Localisation Framework; and PIANGO and the Humanitarian Advisory Group’s measuring localisation framework. These frameworks have largely similar indicators: relationship quality, participation of local actors, funding, capacity, coordination, policy and visibility.

As I highlighted in the first article, most of the existing indicators focus on formalised organisations within the formal ‘humanitarian’ sector. For example, Van Brabant and Patel’s emerging indicators refer to donor proposals and contracts, organisational systems like salary scales and financial procedures, and concepts like capacity enhancement and institutional development. While appropriate for many national/local actors that have the structure of a formal NGO, these may not be applicable when working with individuals, grassroots movements, indigenous groups, the private sector, and academic institutions.

However despite this limitation, many of these indicators are important means of achieving higher-level ends and of realising the original, radical spirit of localisation. For example Van Brabant and Patel’s framework identifies two indicators focusing on ‘Increased financial autonomy and sustainability of the [local/national actor]’; and anticipating and avoiding ‘negative impacts on existing capacities’ and taking corrective action if required. Both of which champion a purpose higher than contractual partnerships that avoid encroaching on national/local actors’ agency.

Two further indicators from the same framework can be understood as a demand for respect of national/local actors’ ways of being. ‘Verbal and non-verbal communications between collaborating entities or between aid agencies and affected populations always express basic respect and take into account cultural sensitivities and differences around what is considered “disrespectful” behaviour’; and ‘existing organisational systems are reinforced rather than disrupted.’

These existing indicators are useful for prescribing specific actions that promote localisation between international and national/local NGOs. But they also help to expand our perspective through recognising that such higher-level ends can be satisfied through means beyond the formal humanitarian sector. And second, as I will explain in the next and final article, doing so can help to reveal an important element of localisation: power.

The dimensions of localisation


Perhaps the most obvious dimension of localisation is resources. This mainly pertains to the financial resources that are necessary for national/local actors to achieve their humanitarian goals. In the earlier essay on state-led solutions, financial contributions from bilateral and multilateral donors were instrumental in facilitating Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which has proved to be successful in preserving livelihoods and reducing suffering during periods of drought. In the case of non-formal actors such as the Buddhist monk networks in Myanmar, their humanitarian response was enabled by funding from the Rakhine First-line Response Mechanism (R-FRM).

Quantity is important. The Grand Bargain’s localisation commitment sets the target of transferring at least 25% of funding as directly as possible to national/local actors. But quality is important, too: existing indicators define this as funding that is flexible, for longer-term (and not just short-term projects), and – for national/local NGOs – it should cover core costs. How funding is accessed also matters: funding requirements (for example, in applying for or reporting against it) should not be too onerous for national/local actors.

In localisation that localises the sector, we have seen repeated challenges around the quality of funding. In the case of Ethiopia and Myanmar, longer-term funding for ‘development’ activities (even though they have humanitarian goals) is not included. Also, the stringent requirements of the UN-administered Country-Based Pooled Fund in Myanmar made it difficult to access. In Myanmar and Colombia, national/local actors felt the funding requirements limited their agency and disrespected their ways of being. If localisation genuinely supports local solutions, then these issues need to be addressed in line with the indicators already highlighted.


Agency can be defined as the ability of national/local actors to identify their problems and priorities, and design or implement their own solutions. This is adapted from the definition of agency in the context of bilateral aid proposed by King (and based on the earlier work of Fraser and Whitfield), which is ‘the degree of control recipient governments are able to secure over implemented policy outcomes’. This also follows the proposition made by Slim that localisation is, ultimately, about self-determination – understood in the UN’s concept of people’s ability to ‘freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’.

Increasing evidence shows that, particularly for aid projects in complex contexts, local actors’ ability to exercise their agency can help to achieve aid effectivenessThat is because local actors possess contextual knowledge, which outsiders may not have access to, that contributes towards better-informed decisions. But beyond the matter of aid effectiveness, the ability of local actors to exercise agency is, according to Slim, a ‘fundamental moral and political’ right.

International humanitarian aid, however, typically encroaches on local actors’ agency. Firstly, donors who underwrite most of the global humanitarian funding allocate such funds based, to a large extent, on their own priorities and preferences, which are not always the same as those of local actors (and of local people, who are at the receiving end of humanitarian projects). In the case of Ethiopia’s PSNP, donors had their own ideas of how the cash transfers should be implemented, which was eventually settled through negotiationIn Myanmar and Colombia, local actors have been constrained by the various requirements – for example, funding and contractual obligations – imposed by their international partners. If international actors do not support or engage with local actors, then the potential of local actors’ agency will also be unrealised – as in the cases of the Philippines and Nigeria, where the governments require support to more effectively provide humanitarian assistance at scale; or the untapped solutions offered by the private sector.

Localisation that localises the sector may transfer resources to local actors but deny them their agency. On the other hand, localisation that genuinely supports local solutions does not encroach on and instead enables local actors’ agency.

Ways of being

Anti-racist and decolonial critiques have highlighted the dominance in humanitarian action of white, western/Global North ontologies (being in the world) and epistemologies (knowing/understanding the world). This can be seen in the bias for Weberian bureaucratic/organisational forms, unequal regard between international versus local knowledge and expertise, and neglect of cultural and contextual appropriateness in humanitarian action. Pailey, speaking about the development sector in a way that is also applicable to the humanitarian sector, highlights the ‘White gaze’ that ‘measures the political, socio-economic and cultural processes of Southern black, brown and other people of colour against a standard of Northern whiteness and finds them incomplete, wanting, inferior or regressive. In essence, white is always right, and West is always best.’

By looking at this dimension, it is possible to determine whether there is respect for local actors’ ways of being – that is, whether there is respect for their being in and understanding of the world, which may not necessarily be expressed in ways that conform to western/Global North paradigms. Cultural appropriateness is essential for effective humanitarian action. But more than effectiveness (doing things right), respect for ways of being is also a matter of ethics (doing the right thing).

Localisation that localises the sector does not show sufficient respect for ways of being. In the cases of Myanmar and Colombia, I explored previously the ‘McDonaldization’ of humanitarian response, where grassroots and indigenous organisations were expected to conform to western/Global North organisational forms and practices due to donor requirements. On the other hand, localisation that supports local solutions respects local actors’ ways of being – in the case of Nigeria, this would require recognising the potential of local public authorities; in Colombia, this would have enabled support for local faith and indigenous communities. Respect for ways of being can also be extended to, say, academic institutions and the private sector. It means recognising that their raison d’être (for example, the pursuit of knowledge or making a profit), as well as the distinct working styles that come with it, does not preclude their contribution to humanitarian goals.

The three dimensions of humanitarian action in the Pacific Islands

Having seen how these dimensions are manifest in previous examples, I will now turn to one final example – the COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold responses in the Pacific – to demonstrate how these different dimensions play out.

Most countries in the Pacific region have been spared the worst of COVID-19. This is owing to their geographical remoteness, but also the swift action of governments in declaring states of emergency, which prevented transmission thanks to containment measures such as border closures and restrictions on travel. As a result, many foreign aid workers have been asked to leave (either because of national regulations or by their own employers). They were also prohibited from entering the countries, even at the onset of a secondary emergency, Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold. This has led to a change in ways of working among humanitarian actors that has promoted localisation.

In terms of resources, preliminary data suggests somewhat positive outcomes. When asked about their perception of the statement, ‘There is increased funding available to local and national actors’ during the COVID-19 response, more than 60% of national/local actors agreed. The Red Cross reports that, specifically for TC Harold, 80% of their Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) went directly to national societies – higher than the DREF internal requirement of channelling at least 60% to national societies. However, as the report from the Humanitarian Advisory Group states, ‘this is still taking place within a broader donor system that prioritises funding through traditional international mechanisms and intermediaries in humanitarian response that ultimately control the direction, quality and model of funding to local actors’. Most national/local actors surveyed said funding was ‘not easy’ to access; almost half reported reduced funding for other existing programmes; and many have said that donors imposed new funding requirements.

In terms of agency and ways of being, there are also positive signs that local solutions have been enabled – even if inadvertently.

Due to the physical absence of international aid workers, national/local actors report increased collaboration among themselves, a more decentralised response as a result of travel restrictions, and an enhancement of their roles in coordination meetings. Women, in particular, ‘had a stronger and more visible role in the COVID-19 response in Vanuatu and Fiji’, which presents a marked difference from the usual ‘typical male-dominated “command and control” mode’ seen in this context. Women’s voices were also amplified by online platforms. Local and national state capabilities have also been supported: for example, the Australian Humanitarian Partnership was praised for collaborative efforts to strengthen preparedness and response mechanisms and coordination across government and non-government sectors.’ All this shows a reduced encroachment on local actors’ agency: ‘National actors report greater influence over decision-making as programs have opened, expanded or altered as a result of COVID-19, as well as a greater sense of empowerment.' [link to Australian Red Cross missing]

National/local actors also report a greater degree of expression for their ways of being. They ‘perceive a more culturally literate work environment with the absence of expatriates’, including conducting meetings in the local language, inclusion of religious practices, a more relaxed and convivial atmosphere, and a better balance between their professional and personal lives. The COVID-19 response also became an opportunity to employ indigenous monitoring and evaluation methodologies, such as tok stori, a practice of storytelling in the Solomon Islands. This is particularly well-suited in a context where people’s ‘primary source of information about disasters was oral history, not media sources’. However, some national/local actors ‘note a nervousness to step into leadership roles because of a fear that their leadership must resemble the model established by international approaches’, which they described as the ‘colonisation of the mind’. At the same time, many of these improvements in respecting local actors’ expression of their ways of being have occurred within the realm of the formal humanitarian system (namely, international project management systems, the cluster system). It is also unclear to what extent international actors have engaged other types of entities, such as the local private sector and academia (although there are some examples, such as UN Women’s partnership with the Vanuatu Business Resilience Committee and Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce). And there is a lack of spotlight on indigenous-designed solutions and initiatives – although this is something deservedly given to the Pacific Islands actors’ neighbours, the Maori in New Zealand, who have played a significant role in preventing COVID-19 transmission in their communities.

These humanitarian responses in the Pacific illustrates how the different dimensions can be used to characterise the international humanitarian system’s engagement with local actors. Beyond looking at direct funding, these dimensions enable a clearer assessment of local actors’ agency (i.e., their ability to identify problems, develop solutions, and make decisions) and ways of being (i.e., their adherence to their own values and ideas about the world). These latter two dimensions are often overlooked in narrow, watered-down understandings of localisation (that is, ones that focuses on localising the sector­). The fact that these dimensions are overlooked limits the radical promise of localisation – hence, in a report by Peace Direct on decolonising aid, one of the recommendations is to “Avoid localisation spin. Don’t reframe ‘localisation’ to defend a particular organisational position or to justify the status quo.” But by characterising agency and ways of being, localisation can take on a more progressive and even decolonial edge that goes beyond an instrumental type of localisation. (Specific typologies of localisation will be discussed in the next article.)

Conclusion and further questions

Looking at the dimensions of resources, agency and ways of being allows us to characterise localisation efforts. In the next and final article of this series, I will elaborate on how these dimensions determine the power relations between humanitarian actors, which differentiate the ‘types’ of localisation.

For now, these dimensions raise interesting questions for further research – the main one being how to measure them. Measuring the quantity and quality of resources transferred to national/local formal NGOs is relatively straightforward, but is it also possible to capture investment towards governments and other entities, which may not typically fall under ‘humanitarian funding’ but nonetheless contribute towards the achievement of humanitarian goals? How might we measure the extent of encroachment on or enablement of national/local actors’ agency? And is it possible to measure respect for ways of being? (A good place to start might be The Dignity Project, which aims to provide a metric for dignity in the development sector.)