Localisation re-imagined: The three types 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 it as a spectrum ranging from instrumental to progressive localisation.

The difference between localisation that localises the sector and one that genuinely supports local solutions is determined by localisation’s three dimensions: resources, agency and ways of being – as I argued in the previous article.

Now, how would these dimensions apply to the examples of local solutions given in the first article – such as the initiatives of my friends in the Philippines or the scientists helping to treat COVID-19 in India? Suppose that a forward-thinking INGO wanted to support their work through localisation (i.e., working with them instead of direct implementation). How would that look like?

If done through a localising the sector model, the INGO in the Philippines would likely require Gela (whose project raises funds, including via community entrepreneurship, for the needs of a typhoon-ravaged and climate-vulnerable island) and Rafa (who was part of a group that started a community pantry for those affected by COVID-19) to register as formal charitable organisations (along with having the necessary governance structure), and to have formal policies and standard operating procedures. Jenica and Michael, who are both working for formal organisations, would have to align their work with the INGO’s strategies and priorities – for instance, if their work is more ‘development’, then perhaps they could add a few ‘humanitarian’ activities or frame their development work as such in their proposals. The Indian scientists who invented ventilators may be asked to share their knowledge via a meeting with technical experts, or the firm where they work may be asked to donate or become a supplier to the INGO – but nothing else beyond that.

In other words, in the international humanitarian system as it currently is, resource transfer to local actors would be limited, the local actors’ agency would still be encroached upon (because they would not be able to fully make their own decisions), and their ways of being would not be fully respected (because they would have to conform to international expectations of what humanitarian actors should be).

In these examples, there is still some sort of localisation, but not to the extent that fulfils the radical localisation that local actors imagined prior to the World Humanitarian Summit. This shows how localising the sector and supporting local solutions are not a binary but a spectrum – along which it would be possible for localisation to be categorised under different kinds or types. If humanitarian workers and researchers were to advance the practice and knowledge of localisation, then it would be beneficial to understand the different ways that localisation can be realised.

In this article, I aim to show that the three dimensions – resources, agency and ways of being – characterise the power dynamic (i.e. where the locus of power lies) in localisation. This power dynamic, in turn, is what determines the ‘type’ of localisation: instrumental, decentralising or progressive. Seeing localisation through these different types, it becomes possible to assess whether there is a shift in (the locus of) power to local actors.

In order to proceed, we need to talk about that elusive but important element: power.

The concept of power

‘Power’, according to Fast and Bennett ‘is…the fuel that energises [the sector’s] institutions, partnerships and decisions’. This is true for localisation, too. King, Pinnington, Martins and I suggest that, in the aid sector, ‘power infuses everything – including localisation efforts’. In the previous article, I proposed that resources, agency and ways of being characterise localisation. In this article, I want to be more specific: these three dimensions determine the power dynamic within localisation, which gives localisation its character.

But what is power? In answering this, it helps to bring in a classic text on the subject. Lukes, in his influential book Power: A Radical View, defines power based on the three ways it is exercised: decision-making power (the way decisions are made), non-decision-making power (the parameters in which such decisions are made), and ideological power (the ideas that inform such ways and parameters of decision-making).

In the context of localisation, its dimensions – resources, agency and ways of being – represent how power is exercised. For example, resources correspond closely to decision-making power, because they determine what kind of actions can be taken (i.e. depending on funding priorities or budgets; depending on staffing levels; and so on). Agency is the ability not only to make decisions (thus corresponding with decision-making power), but also to shape the formal decision-making parameters (which relates to non-decision-making power) – for instance, when donors are the ones deciding on eligibility criteria or due diligence requirements. Ways of being, which looks at whether or not localisation respects local actors’ being and understanding of the world, is reflected in the ideas underlying (formal and informal) decision-making (corresponding with ideological power) – for instance, the ideas around what humanitarian ‘effectiveness’ means or what is the most appropriate organisational form that local actors must embody to access funding.

These are not clear-cut distinctions – how these dimensions correspond to Lukes’ conceptualisation of power may overlap. For example, resources can also shape ideological power – after all, those with better resources have a stronger influence on ideas (like how humanitarian education in universities is dominated by the well-resourced Global North, which means people in the Global North have a disproportionate influence on ideas that are taught in humanitarian courses). Nevertheless, this stylistic representation can help us better to characterise the power dynamic in localisation efforts.

Power: a zero-sum game?

Lukes’ idea helps us to recognise that in localisation efforts – through resources, agency and ways of being – someone is prevailing in the exercise of decision-making, non-decision-making and ideological power. This, then, makes visible who is exercising power, and how they are exercising it. If we know who is exercising power, and how they are exercising it, this makes it possible to ‘shift the power’.

By ‘shifting the power’, I mean moving the locus of power: from donors and INGOs to local actors. The meaning of ‘locus’ in psychology can be insightful in this regard. It is often used in the phrase ‘locus of control’. When an individual’s locus of control is external, they often feel powerless about the things that happen to them (‘others control my destiny’), which leads to negative psychological behaviours. But if their locus of control is internal (‘I control my destiny’), then it can lead to more positive ways of dealing with life’s difficulties.

That localisation’s locus of power can be shifted runs contrary to the popular idea that, as Fast and Bennet argue, ‘local humanitarian action is not a zero-sum game.’ They write, ‘Supporting local humanitarian action implies contextualised and complementary functions, not simply a reduced role for international humanitarian organisations or increased roles for local actors, where the contributions of one preclude those of others’.

Given what I’ve outlined above, however, it’s clear that one cannot have one’s localisation cake and eat it, too. Decisions are usually either taken by international actors or local actors. Money is either transferred to the local actors or not. Cultural approaches may be followed or ignored. Perhaps ‘zero-sum game’ is not the most fitting term to describe this dynamic (these are not quantifiable figures, and actual situations are more complex than the simple illustrations above). But in the context of localisation, it is possible to see where the locus of power lies – and usually, it’s with the international actors.

The three emerging types of localisation

It thus becomes possible to characterise localisation by how it does (or does not) shift the locus of power to local actors. Based on this characteristic, three types of localisation emerge along a spectrum: instrumental, decentralising and progressive.


Instrumental localisation is when there is mostly only a transfer of resources – where agency remains encroached upon and local ways of being are not respected. As noted in the previous article, localisation is still largely measured only in terms of funding transferred to local actors (e.g., the Inter-Agency Standing Committee localisation marker). If a donor provides a significant amount of funding directly to local actors, but still gets to decide what kind of local actors are eligible to receive such funding and how the money can be used, this fulfils localisation indicators. In this scenario, local actors serve as instruments by which international actors can exercise their will and pursue their own interests, and the locus of power remains with the international actor.


Van Brabant and Patel describe a ‘decentralisation interpretation of localisation’ as being achieved ‘if strategic, operational and financial decisions are made close to the at risk or affected areas, and if 25% of financial resources go “as directly as possible” to “local” actors’. Building on this description, decentralising localisation can be understood as a transfer of resources and a reduction, to a certain extent, on the encroachment of local actors’ agency. If local actors receive direct funding as well as greater freedom to make decisions not just on funding but on all aspects of their work, then that has a decentralising effect. One example is ‘nationalising’ an INGO country office so that it’s run by staff from that context – there are greater resources and agency, although the local INGO office likely would still have to ‘play by the rules’ of the global INGO federation and the wider international humanitarian sector. The locus of power is somewhat shifted towards local actors, so it is a positive step. However, in some cases the locus can still be mostly nearer the side of international actors.


Progressive localisation transfers a significant amount of resources, does not encroach on the agency of the local actors to a high degree, and respects local actors’ ways of being. In this type of localisation, local actors not only have the funding and the autonomy, but they are also able to respond to crises and solve humanitarian problems on their own terms, via their own knowledge and understanding of the world, in a way that shapes their own destinies. Within the international humanitarian architecture and its institutional context, this is very rare. Control and paternalism appear to be the norm. For instance, the similar although not equivalent concept of unconditional cash transfers – which gives recipients the dignity and autonomy of purchasing what they need instead of being predetermined by someone else – took several decades before it entered mainstream humanitarian practice and achieved significant milestones. An example that is close to progressive localisation features in the previous article: in responding to Tropical Cyclone Harold and Covid-19, the Pacific Island NGOs had access to resources, exercised their agency to make decisions and their ways of being were respected, especially in how their indigenous knowledge informed the response. Progressive localisation shifts the locus of power to local actors in a radical way.

Both ends of the localisation spectrum

As I mentioned earlier, localisation can be seen as a spectrum that ranges between localising the sector and supporting local solutions. In between both ends of this spectrum lie the three types of localisation. Instrumental localisation and decentralising localisation are closer to localising the sector, where the Global North retains the locus of power (although less so in the latter than the former). International actors still have most of the power to make decisions and set decision-making parameters, and they have the hegemony over ideas that shape such processes. The locus of power is shifted only to a limited extent, and only to formal humanitarian organisations for ‘humanitarian’ activities.

By contrast, progressive localisation is firmly in the direction of genuinely supporting local solutions. The locus of power is shifted to local actors that aim to address humanitarian problems – on their own terms, no matter how they ‘look’, in ways that are relevant and appropriate to their context, and in a manner that is able to transcend the arbitrary humanitarian-development divide.

Conclusion and further questions

There are a variety of ways to ‘do’ localisation (in fact, in another article, King, Martins, Pinnington and I looked at more than 21 localisation initiatives, in part to see how their publicly stated goals align with the three dimensions of resources, agency and ways of being). Not all localisation endeavours are equal – some are instrumental or decentralising (thus, localising the sector), while some are progressive (when they genuinely support local solutions). This is determined by where the locus of power lies.

Recognising the three types of localisation opens up avenues for further research. How could we better identify these types of localisation empirically (for instance, how can localisation indicators be remodelled in light of such types)? And how exactly does humanitarian performance correspond with each type of localisation?

In any case, by making visible the power dynamic, this proposed typology of localisation can help finally to fulfil the radical promise of localisation by decisively shifting the power to local actors.