Localisation re-imagined: Localising the sector vs supporting local solutions

‘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 introductory article, Arbie asks 'Does our concept of localisation go far enough in supporting local people who are trying to solve their own problems?'

I scroll through my social media feeds to see friends in the Philippines involved in their own respective causes.

Gela started a fundraiser to help an island community – the same one she’s worked with over many years – recently devastated by a typhoon. Rafa helped set up a community pantry in his barangay[1], joining hundreds of others who have done the same to support those whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID-19. Jenica, who is the Philippines director for a US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), is leading an effort to provide access to clean water and proper sanitation for marginalised communities. Michael, who works for an Asia-based foundation, led the distribution of essential supplies to urban slum populations affected by the pandemic.

I chat with my friends and many others who are working on national and local initiatives in the Philippines. I read their online posts and participate in their Zoom webinars. A range of things are discussed: the technical stuff around community-based interventions, government accountability, citizen participation, funding.

Everyone is busy trying to come up with solutions to their respective cause’s problems.

Meanwhile, in the same social media feeds, I see international colleagues – many of whom work for large international NGOs based in the US or Europe – grapple with issues within the so-called humanitarian system. This includes localisation, a concept that intends to ‘shift the power’ to national and local actors, who, it is argued, are more effective at finding solutions to problems within a context that they know better than outsiders.

I talk to other INGO professionals who are working on localisation. I read reports and am invited to Zoom webinars – but this time, the focus appears to be on the humanitarian sector, while humanitarian solutions seem secondary. In a recent tweet, I wrote about how the concept of localisation seems to be predominantly used in the Global North. Others quickly chimed in to agree.

I cannot help but sense a disconnect. What would local humanitarian problem-solvers, many of whom are outside the formal humanitarian system, make of the current discourse on localisation? How can, say, a capacity enhancement framework developed by an INGO be relevant to the work of a group of young people who are setting up a community pantry in the Philippines or that of scientists developing affordable ventilators in India?

That is to say, might we be conceiving localisation in a way that does not speak to local realities, and does not go far enough in supporting local people who are trying to solve their own problems?

A radical history of localisation

There is now a consensus that localisation is a worthy goal. It is reflected most significantly in the localisation commitment of the Grand Bargain made among the world’s largest aid donors and aid agencies during the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016. And it is backed by a growing literature particularly from INGOs showing how national/local actors are best placed to respond in humanitarian crises.[2]

Localisation, however, started out as a nebulous concept. The related term locally-led was already being used in the development sector even before localisation entered the humanitarian sector’s jargon.[3] Since then, localisation has meant different things from different perspectives: it could be a pragmatic exercise of cost-effectiveness in bypassing international intermediaries[4]; it meant the ‘de-internationalisation’ of the humanitarian sector;[5] a specific kind of partnership that can be called accompaniment;[6] ‘shifting the power’ to local actors;[7] it could be an existential challenge to the legitimacy of INGOs.[8]

In the run-up to the WHS, several regional consultations were held. These meetings, which produced far-reaching recommendations particularly on localisation, seemed imbued with a spirit of radicalism and possibility. There were strong statements about the central role of governments: that humanitarian action is ‘the primary responsibility of states’,[9] that humanitarian actors should ‘better support host governments, particularly at the local level, and strengthen their leadership role in humanitarian action’.[10]

There was also emphasis on the contributions of civil society and the private sector. There was a call for ‘strengthening the…capacity of domestic institutions and actors, such as…civil society organizations and affected communities in humanitarian preparedness and response.[11] Another call was to ‘engage military actors, business and the private sector, academic institutions and other stakeholders';[12] as well as a push to ‘break down barriers and make the formal humanitarian system more inclusive’.[13]

Localisation, during these regional consultations, meant a ‘whole-of-society approach…recognizing the diversity of, and within, communities and the need to work with multiple actors at all levels’.[14] This framing resonates with earlier literature not just in the humanitarian but also in the development space around being locally-led, where the solutions ‘originate with local actors’ and where the goal is to ‘support locally emerging initiatives’[15]– like community pantries in the Philippines or COVID-19 ventilators in India.

Winners and losers of the localisation debates

In the final version of the Grand Bargain, the richness of these regional conversations was distilled into one line: ‘more support and funding tools for local and national responders’.

Specific commitments under this include: increased direct multi-year investment to local actors; removing administrative burdens on local partners; supporting national coordination mechanisms; and promoting instruments like country-based pooled funds. The aim was to make humanitarian action ‘as local as possible and as international as necessary’.

The letter of the localisation commitment was vigorously debated. Does direct funding mean no intermediaries, or is one layer of INGO acceptable? Should national affiliates of international organisations count as ‘local responders’? So too was its spiritframed by Van Brabant and Patel as a dichotomy between localisation as merely decentralisation (i.e., shifting funding and decision-making to those closer to the context) and transformation, where success is defined as ‘much stronger national capacities and leadership’.

Five years after the WHS and the Grand Bargain – and the plethora of position papers, policy briefs and panels that have been produced since then – the dust has begun to settle. Localisation, once nebulous, is taking shape – particularly through what has been cut. Winners and losers have emerged in this process – and the decentralisation interpretation has largely won.

This is evident in the way the localisation commitment focuses on formal organisational dynamics that, in the words of the Report of the WHS Secretary-General, does not seem to shift away ‘from delivering aid to ending need’. In the Grand Bargain, localisation is framed as strengthening the organisational capacities of local responders, or as improving partnerships between international agencies and donors and local actors. The official Grand Bargain localisation marker – a tool that tracks the localisation performance of donors/INGOs – focuses exclusively on a single metric: funding.

More sophisticated localisation indices similarly put formal organisations at centre stage. NEAR’s (Network for Empowered Aid Response) Localisation Performance Measurement Framework is used mainly by local/national actors, and looks at six components of an organisation (partnerships, funding, capacity, coordinating and complementarity, policy and influence, and participation). The Shift the Power coalition – comprising Christian Aid, ActionAid, Tearfund and Oxfam – developed a global localisation framework based on national localisation frameworks developed in four countries (Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, South Sudan), which evaluates localisation progress across four areas (partnerships, capacity, financial resources, coordination). The Global Mentoring Initiative, commissioned by the Start Network, emphasises the need for changes at the systemic level, but the 57 indicators of their seven dimensions of localisation overly focus on formal organisations.[16]

The transformation agenda – including the radicalism and richness of the WHS regional consultations and the idea of locally led solutions – has lost out. Within the Grand Bargain – and indeed in much localisation discourse and practice – there is a lack of attention directed to things like the primacy of government, what strengthening civil society actually looks like,  the role of markets and the private sector, and the potential contributions of informal networks.

This is reflected in the five-year assessments of the Grand Bargain by Global South-led coalitions. The Alliance for Empowering Partnerships (A4EP) points out the ‘noticeable reluctance to open the space for meaningful inclusion and participation of local actors’[17] and how ‘Northern jargon-led discourses do not speak to how national and local practitioners think and communicate, just as the energy, time and money devoted to conforming to the international relief sector's way of operating seems a massive distraction to them, from what is needed in a more “real” world’.[18] Charter4Change recommends that the Grand Bargain in the future must ‘connect to a wider range of local and national NGOs (LNNGOs)…including diverse forms of civil society often marginalised by the mainstream international response’.

All this seems to explain the sense of disconnect between the international humanitarian system’s localisation efforts and the grassroots work that continue regardless of it – not just in the Philippines and India, but in many other places.

A new localisation research agenda

To be very clear, shifting control away from Global North humanitarian gatekeepers towards national and local organisations is necessary and long overdue. Even measured by the arguably narrower decentralisation metrics, the international humanitarian sector is performing poorly. In 2020, only 4.7% of funding reached national/local actors directly (at its peak in 2018, it was 9.8% – nowhere near the 25% target).[19] Even before localisation became the jargon du jour, there were consistent calls for national and local organisations to take the reins in humanitarian response.[20]

However, without meaning to discount the value of (and distract from) the importance of improving organisational funding and partnerships, I wonder if limiting localisation’s scope in such a way could lead to unintended costs and missed opportunities.

Given this, important questions arise:

  • Is the current conceptualisation of localisation living up to or falling short of how Global South actors themselves understand it, based on the WHS consultations?
  • How might localisation actually look if it were to embody the radicalism of how Global South actors interpret it?
  • What shapes localisation? Are there different types of localisation? And how is the sector performing against these different types of localisation?
  • How does understanding different types of localisation help us better understand the relationship between locally-led humanitarian response and better performance in humanitarian assistance and protection? 

I will attempt to answer these questions in a series of articles that will lay the foundation for ALNAP’s broader research programme on locally-led humanitarian action. In doing so, I propose a subtle but important shift in the way we understand localisation: one that swings away from overly focusing on localising the humanitarian sector and instead moves towards supporting local humanitarian solutions.

I plan to do this through looking at the different dimensions of localisation, including its outcome (what does localisation look like?) and its determinants (what shapes localisation?). By doing so, I hope to set some parameters that could identify models or typologies of localisation where supporting local humanitarian solutions – such as those pursued by my friends Gela, Rafa, Jenica and Michael, and many others in the Global South – is the lodestar.

Read more in the series


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