Localisation re-imagined: Ethics and purpose in 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 focuses on the benefits of ‘progressive localisation’ (one of the three types he listed in another essay in the series).

In the beginning of this series, I discussed how localisation in the humanitarian sector has largely focused on localising the sector, in which the radical promise of localisation – a ‘whole-of-society approach …recognizing the diversity of, and within, communities and the need to work with multiple actors at all levels’ – has been diluted to mere efficiencies in sub-granting or nationalising INGO offices.

I argued that what is needed instead is a model of supporting local solutions, which entails not just the transfer of resources to local actors, but also not encroaching on their agency and respecting their ways of being. This moves beyond an instrumental or decentralising type of localisation, where international actors still call the shots, and towards a progressive type of localisation, where the locus of power shifts from international to local actors.

In this final article, I look deep and wide. I consider the more profound implications for both humanitarian research and the humanitarian sector more broadly if we are to seriously consider the ideas of supporting local solutions and progressive localisation.

There are two implications of these ideas. Firstly, they challenge our dichotomic view of effectiveness and ethics. And secondly, they induce a step back from the humanitarian sector’s myopia to see the bigger picture and purpose of solving humanitarian problems.

The effectiveness–ethics dichotomy

In ALNAP’s 2021 annual meeting, the closing remark of ALNAP’s Acting Director, Juliet Parker, talked about how global disruptions – the COVID-19 pandemic, global anti-racism protests, a renewed debate on decolonisation – have highlighted certain tensions within humanitarian action: accountability versus trust, performance versus justice, and rapid change versus inclusive leadership.

Elsewhere, I have argued similarly: that there is a balance to be had between what I call excellence and ethics. I have pointed out that traditional humanitarian measures of excellence, such as technical soundness or being agile and fast responders, must be balanced with ethical considerations such as contextual appropriateness and being more careful to avoid doing harm.

But if we understand localisation’s goal as supporting local solutions, we would realise that in many cases, these sets of two values – accountability and trust, performance and justice, rapidity and inclusiveness, excellence and ethics – are not always inversely correlated.

Trusting and being inclusive to local actors (such as in the case of states/public authorities in Ethiopia, Philippines and Nigeria; the diversity of local actors in Myanmar and Colombia; the private sector) can make humanitarian action more efficient. Demonstrating justice and ethics – for instance, by recognising state sovereignty, or by valuing indigenous practices and knowledge – aids achieving humanitarian goals.

Trust, justice, inclusive leadership and ethics are not always trade-offs in pursuit of humanitarian effectiveness. As the various examples in previous articles have shown, they can, in fact, be enablers of it.

Extending this logic in the context of localisation, this means that supporting local solutions may be key to better humanitarian performance. Pursuing effectiveness and aiming to shift the locus of power are not always mutually exclusive but may go hand-in-hand.

This opens up fruitful avenues for research and reflection. For one, it compels us to consider a more expansive view of effectiveness. One that is not only focused on formal humanitarian benchmarks, but takes a bigger, pluralistic view. One that takes into account the role of states and diverse local actors (including indigenous/grassroots ones, and also the private sector and knowledge communities), as well as the priorities of local actors themselves that transcend the development-humanitarian divide. It also enables us to ask: if ethics and effectiveness are not always inversely correlated, when and under what conditions are they so?

From siloed myopia to seeing the bigger purpose

Understanding localisation as going beyond formal humanitarian aid and, instead, supporting the diverse forms of local actors and their solutions enables an escape from what many have called the humanitarian sector’s self-referential bubble – in other words, the sector’s myopia.

Many scholars – anthropologists, psychologists, biologists and political scientists – have pointed out western culture’s unique tendency for atomisation. But in attempting to solve global wicked problems – such as conflict and climate vulnerability – the same kind of atomisation in humanitarian action serves as a hindrance. In reference to the dysfunction of the international humanitarian system, DuBois argues, ‘The problem with the triple nexus is not the lack of linkage between the three silos. The problem is the silos themselves, or, more precisely, the conglomerated silos of sub-specialisation within each sectoral silo: the way that humanitarian health, nutrition, protection, and water and sanitation often work within their own disconnected sub-sectors’.

Escaping the humanitarian myopia means recognising that the actions and innovations of local actors – even if they are not formally ‘humanitarian’ – can help to solve humanitarian problems and achieve humanitarian goals.

Global South actors, especially during the regional meetings in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit, and as seen through their own testimonies in various reports, have demanded solutions to the issues they face. The Global South want wars prevented, not just food aid delivered; climate vulnerability addressed, not just cash transferred for basic supplies for one month. And local actors are working to solve their problems in creative ways – but the humanitarian system insists on cutting up the work into various ‘sectors’ and ‘clusters’.

Progressive localisation, which genuinely supports local solutions, recognises the full diversity of local actors – from states to scientists, activists to academics, community groups to corporations – and the contributions each can bring, in their own terms, towards achieving humanitarian goals.

While DuBois’s diagnosis of the problem is right, his prescription for a cure seems misguided. He argues for going ‘back to basics’ in humanitarian response; he says that if ‘your father has a heart attack’, it would be unhelpful if the emergency responders also ‘change your family’s diet and fitness practices, establish a more equitable relationship between the genders, treat your brother’s multiple sclerosis and help your sister with her math homework’. DuBois further argues that this need to ‘scale back, not up’ is because of the ‘very notion of a crisis that is humanitarian in nature’.

But on this last point, I would ask, according to whom? Judging by the testimonies of Global South actors, they emphatically do not see things like conflict and vulnerability to climate as simply ‘humanitarian in nature’. Local actors see these as deeply rooted problems with both short- and long-term impacts, which cannot be easily parsed out as ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’, nor divvied up between ‘the aid sector’ and ‘the private sector’.

While categories such as ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ can be practical, there is a real risk – as already experienced by some local actors – that this leads us to act as though all problems are nails when we wield our humanitarian hammers. What I’m hearing Global South actors demand is not a change in scale but a complete transformation. And such transformation can begin with a step back from the international humanitarian system’s myopia to see the bigger picture – the bigger purpose.

In a lecture, the NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go into space, recalled a question posed to another scientist who was building a telescope in South Africa. She recalled that the scientist was asked, ‘Why would South Africa do that when it has issues and problems and poverty?’. Jemison quoted the scientist’s reply: ‘He said because people have dreams. And dreams don’t all revolve around just food...Our dreams are our hopes – that’s where we move.’ The psychologist Anthony Burrows, who studies the concept of purpose, uses Jemison – whose public project aims to reach the nearest star in 100 years – as an example to illustrate a point:

Her purpose is to travel to the nearest star. And to really consider what it would take to do that. What kind of technologies should we get busy building? What kind of activities, self-understanding are needed for us to build that kind of technology, that kind of society…that would allow us to successfully make this journey?

The genius of that articulated purpose really invites us to think about all the things we need to do as individuals, as a collective, as communities – from the arts to the sciences – to survive that trip.

The arbitrary division of labour leads to humanitarian myopia, which in turn obscures our bigger purpose – the prevention of unnecessary suffering and death, especially in crises. Localising the sector facilitates this obfuscation, whereby local solutions, which could prevent such unnecessary suffering and death, are hindered because local actors do not have access to resources, their agencies are encroached upon, and their ways of being are not respected.

Supporting local solutions through progressive localisation can orient us to this bigger purpose. It promotes a healthy agnosticism about the modes of humanitarian practice (which are usually defined, and gatekept, by international actors from the Global North), and it encourages the humanitarian system to include and support the full diversity of local actors and their efforts in coming up with solutions to their problems.

This raises further questions: Under what conditions can diverse local actors’ creativity and ingenuity most productively contribute towards effectively achieving humanitarian goals? How can such creativity and ingenuity be harnessed by the humanitarian sector as it is today? And if change is required to do that, what changes does this mean for the international humanitarian system?


Throughout this series, I proposed that localisation can either be done in a way that localises the sector or genuinely supports local solutions. The latter means fertilising the soil of state-led solutions and regenerating the polycultures of humanitarian action. This, as I’ve shown through various examples, can make the achievement of humanitarian goals more effective.

Localisation that localises the sector is instrumental or decentralising, where international actors remain the ones calling the shots. But genuinely supporting local solutions demonstrates progressive localisation, where the locus of power shifts to local actors. 

Contrary to the perceived tension between the effectiveness and ethics, this may mean that shifting the power via progressive localisation enables humanitarian effectiveness. At the same time, progressive localisation, by genuinely supporting local solutions, asks us to take a step back from our humanitarian silos to look at the bigger picture – the bigger purpose – in solving humanitarian problems.

The ideas presented in this series of essays raise further questions for the localisation agenda. But one thing seems clear: the international humanitarian system requires a rethink if it is to fulfil the original radical promise of localisation – that is, to truly shift the power to the full diversity of local actors, so that they can find lasting solutions to crises in their societies.

It has been five years since the Grand Bargain, and after all those debates about what localisation meant, localising the sector appears to be the winning definition. With this series of articles, and ALNAP’s further localisation research programme, especially as Grand Bargain 2.0 approaches, we hope to spark the localisation debate anew, with the goal of advancing humanitarian practice and research.