Localisation Re-imagined: Fertilising the soil of state-led 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 article, Arbie considers the state’s role within the localisation agenda and how international actors do, or do not, work with national governments.

At the regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit, national and local representatives spoke in no uncertain terms about the role of their own governments. In the Middle East and North Africa meeting, participants and stakeholders said, ‘governments were acknowledged to have the primary responsibility in humanitarian action.[1] Those in the North and Southeast Asia consultation emphasised that ‘host governments [are] in the driving seat.[2] In Latin America and the Caribbean, they called to ‘promote the main role of governments in humanitarian assistance.[3] In the West and Central Africa meeting, they recognised that the ‘government’s role is pivotal.[4]

One thing is clear from what Global South actors themselves have said: in any discussion on humanitarian action, the starting point must be, as Obrecht argues, that it is ‘the province of local actors’ – such as the government – ‘encroached upon by international agents’.[5]

In this series, I am proposing a subtle shift in the way we conceptualise localisation – moving away from localising the sector towards supporting local solutions. This shift could lead to stronger research on locally-led humanitarian action, as well as improved policy and practice that is more effective in achieving humanitarian goals. In the first article, I tried to show how our understanding of localisation appears to have been watered down from its more radical conceptions. If we think of localisation as supporting local solutions instead, what would its outcome look like?

The key to answering this is by looking at the role of the state.

Governments, as we shall see, can be effective in achieving humanitarian goals. In some contexts, they already have the solutions that would benefit from additional investment; in other contexts, while they might not have the immediate capability, their potential can be realised with longer-term support. However, their capacities are often unrecognised, and they do not always get the support they require.

Using cases where governments demonstrate the potential to provide humanitarian assistance effectively – in Ethiopia,[6] the Philippines and Nigeria – I ask: How does the state’s role fit in with the localisation agenda? How must we reconceive of localisation in light of the state’s role in providing solutions and achieving humanitarian goals? What are the implications for future localisation research?

Sovereignty and effectiveness

Localisation, perhaps more than anything else, is an issue of sovereignty and self-determination.[7] There is something essentially important in the ability of states and societies to be able to determine not just their response to crises in the present, but also their direction for the future.[8]

Humanitarians, however, generally take issue with working closely with governments because of their commitment to adhering to humanitarian principles: ‘too often, neutrality and independence are taken as shorthand for disengagement from state structures, rather than as necessitating principled engagement with them.’[9] A recent analysis shows that evidence of local non-governmental actors’ adherence to humanitarian principles is largely based on perception instead of actual empirical evidence.[10] Given this, it is plausible that INGOs’ hesitance to work with governments may be similarly justified by perceptions instead of actual reality. Further, given that government actors are not homogenous – with different levels, ministerial/departmental mandates, and approaches – the possibility of working with them in a principled way should not be blankly ruled out.

That is not to say that there are no issues with working with the government. There are contexts where they are unwilling or unable to provide humanitarian assistance, and where civil society has to step in (this will be discussed in the next article of the series). But as the default position, what is enshrined in the UN resolution that ‘created the humanitarian system’ should ideally be upheld: that the ‘State has the responsibility first and foremost…in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory.’[11]

National and local governments can be effective in fulfilling this responsibility.[12] They can tap into their human, technological, financial and other kinds of resources; they can coordinate a complex network of actors (such as ministries and civil society);[13] they have scale to reach masses of people including remote populations;[14] and they can integrate responses to their development strategies for sustainability.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the government established the Productive Safety Net Programme (PNSP) to escape the cycle of emergency responses to food insecurity that has regularly occurred for more than two decades since the 1984 famine. It is a genuinely locally led programme: it was the Ethiopian prime minister who convened the working group to address chronic food insecurity and dependence on foreign aid; the design originated from a government-led concept note; and despite the difficulty in overcoming donor power dynamics, the government has managed to exercise a great deal of sovereignty over the PSNP.[15] Now in its fourth iteration, evaluations of the 15-year-old PSNP validate its successes: it has, among other outcomes, increased adequate food provisioning and increased resilience to shocks.[16] An ALNAP study concludes that the PSNP is ‘largely seen as a success story’.

In the Philippines, local governments have a good track record of providing humanitarian assistance: local government units (LGUs) have established Quick Response Funds (QRFs) that have been rapidly used in emergencies; during the COVID-19 pandemic, some LGUs have used a part of their budget to supplement the national Social Amelioration Programme (SAP) that provides cash transfers to households in need of income.

In Nigeria, while the humanitarian sector provides most of the assistance in the conflict-affected northeast states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, there is already a national social assistance infrastructure in place: the Household Uplifting Programme (HUP) that is similar to the PSNP. When people were asked who could be an alternative to INGOs in providing them with aid effectively, their top response was ‘local councils’.[17] Each state has the autonomy to design how they are going to deliver social assistance, although they may not always have the funds to do so.

So, national and local governments have solutions and can effectively lead in achieving humanitarian goals. According to an ALNAP study, in cases like Ethiopia for instance, there is ‘widespread consensus that local government is ultimately the only institution that can manage these roles’.

Recognising state capacity and building state capability

Despite their key role in searching for solutions to achieve humanitarian goals, governments’ capacities are not always recognised. Or if they do require support in building their capabilities, the humanitarian sector is reluctant to provide it.

In localisation, local actors’ capacity ‘is not always understood as including local and national governments’.[18] It also tends to ‘undervalue’ local actors’ – including states’ – operational capacity (i.e., local actors’ capacity to deliver assistance) compared to international actors’ organisational capacity (i.e., international actors’ capacity around management and organisational governance).[19] Drawing from literature in development, international aid actors’ valuation of state capacity is often underpinned by western/Weberian assumptions, which may be characterised as neo-colonial and may view national or local ways of working as inferior.[20]

Localisation is meant to foster a humanitarian response that is ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’.[21] This is understood as complementarity, in which ‘all capacities at all levels – local, national, regional, international – are harnessed and combined in a way that supports the best humanitarian outcomes for affected populations’.[22] But because local government is seen as lacking in capacity, and because international humanitarian response is ‘based on the premise that local capacity is overwhelmed’,[23] the international humanitarian system defaults to intervention – especially through parallel service delivery – instead of building on what already exists.

In the Philippines, for example, Oxfam has set up their own version of the QRF, and INGOs including a UN agency delivered cash transfers in parallel to the government-run SAP.[24] In Nigeria, despite the government being well-placed to reach affected populations, assistance in response to the conflict and displacement in the northeast of the country is dominated by INGOs.

It would be wrong to claim that national/local governments do not need support from international actors because they are already perfectly capable. States often welcome support and investment from international partners: the PSNP is largely financed by 10 donors (the Ethiopian government mostly contributes civil servant staff time);[25] and Philippine LGUs also receive financial and technical assistance from international (mostly development) agencies.[26]

This highlights another issue: the international humanitarian system does not see itself as being responsible for helping to build state capability towards achieving humanitarian goals. Humanitarians see it as the development sector’s job, not theirs. This is, in fact, a long-standing issue, dating back to debates around ‘linking relief, recovery and development’[27] to what is now known as the ‘humanitarian–development nexus’.[28] But despite a commitment from the UN Secretary General during the World Humanitarian Summit to ‘transcend the humanitarian-development divide’, the outgoing UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said as recently as May 2021 that humanitarian agencies ‘can only ever respond to the symptoms of global crises’.

Local actors emphatically reject this arbitrary division of labour between the humanitarian and development sectors, which is largely imposed on them by international actors. In a paper on localisation, Robillard et al. say: ‘Every single local and national actor we spoke to [in one country] asserted that the barrier between humanitarian work, on the one hand, and development and human rights work, on the other, was artificial.’. In correspondence with a staff member of a local organisation, I was told: ‘As a practitioner, one does not find it really useful to completely distinguish humanitarian actions from development ones.[29] Robillard et al. also add that there is ‘a strong consensus among the local actors we spoke to for this study that the most important opportunity for local humanitarian leadership lies in dismantling the humanitarian intervention framework’.

Despite these perspectives, building state capability, which is crucial to achieving humanitarian goals, does not always feature prominently in the current conceptualisation of localisation. For example, contributions to Ethiopia’s PSNP (which over 2015–2020 had a budget of $2.3 billion, largely funded by donors such as the World Bank, the World Food Programme, the US and the UK), to finance state capability are not counted towards the Grand Bargain target of funding channelled directly to national/local actors. (Based on the data from Global Humanitarian Assistance report estimates, the average funds directly channelled to national/local actors between 2016 and 2020 were $650 million.).[30] In the Philippines, it was the development agency UNDP that played a key role in providing financial and technical assistance to a local government unit.

At the same time, if Ethiopia’s PSNP example is anything to go by, building state capability goes beyond short-term project-based capacity-building activities typical in humanitarian programming. It means channelling the bulk of effort and resources not towards intervention but towards an intentional longer-term, multi-year investment in national and local public systems.

There are arguments showing that international humanitarian actors are ‘not particularly well placed either to assess capacities or support capacity strengthening’ – because they do not have the skills, knowledge or evaluation techniques to do so.[31] But if this is what is demanded of the international humanitarian system, and the aim of localisation is to truly meet what is being demanded (instead of to deliver what is readily supplied), then this is something that international humanitarian actors must seriously address. If humanitarian aid is provided on the basis of what international actors can supply, instead of what local actors actually demand, then that is a sign of a broken system.

This challenges the prevailing conception of complementarity. Does it mean harnessing all actors’ capacities? Or could it be understood as international actors matching their supply with what local actors demand? This adds to the numerous reflections about INGOs’ role in the future: should they be ‘leveraging [their] comparative advantage'[32] and keep doing what they are already good at; or must they aim to meet what is being asked of them – even if it means changing what they do and how they work?

From interveners to fertilisers

If we accept what Global South actors see as the government’s central role in humanitarian response, then it follows that localisation must avoid overly focusing on localising the sector, and instead support local solutions – including those that stem from the state. And if localisation supports state-led solutions, then it means recognising capacity where it exists and building on state capability where necessary.

But recognising local capacity and building state capability appear to be incompatible with the default understanding of humanitarian action’s premise as intervention when state capacity is overwhelmed. How can this be productively reframed?

A proposition would be to see localisation as fertilising the soil of state-led humanitarian solutions.

Helping to build state capability in solving any type of problem is already a ‘wicked hard'[33] undertaking. Doing so in humanitarian response – a sector steeped in complexity[34] – especially in crisis-affected settings is doubly so. And if solving humanitarian problems is not simple but complex – like tending a garden[35] – then maybe one model of localisation is for INGOs to not act as intervenors (or even ‘intermediaries'[36]), but as fertilisers of the soil from which state-led solutions can grow.

Such a reframing recognises that there is already something planted that could grow. It may be that, in the beginning, it is less efficient to work with national/local bureaucracies than either implementing directly or working with local NGOs: in the Philippines, for instance, a former civil servant says that sometimes it is preferable that humanitarian assistance is provided by an INGO and not by government because it risks getting delayed by bureaucratic red tape.[37] But with sufficient investment, it could improve. After all, it took more than 20 years of emergency response cycles until the PSNP was established in Ethiopia – and today it is cited as one of the optimal mechanisms for delivering shock-responsive social protection for vulnerable households during a spike in food insecurity.[38] This requires humanitarian actors to consider accounting for time, space and (more importantly) funds for institutional learning and growth.

Such a reframing also does not impose, but instead finds solutions rooted in local realities. For instance, the international aid system, as mentioned earlier, has a tendency to see western/Weberian state capabilities as superior. But fertilising the soil allows for the possibility of indigenous solutions to emerge. In Nigeria, for example, some of the most successful peace-building mechanisms are through local traditional leaders and institutions. Not imposing western/Weberian definitions can mean having an expansive definition of ‘government’ – for example, one that comprises ‘local public authorities’, which can be understood as ‘any kind of authority beyond the immediate family which commands a degree of consent’,[39] and which could include traditional leaders. So, in such a reframing, ‘localisation to government[40]' can also mean supporting non-state local public authorities.

Conclusion and further questions

States and governments are seen as having the primary responsibility for achieving humanitarian goals. Indeed, as Harvey wrote more than a decade ago, ‘one of the goals of international humanitarian actors should always be to encourage and support states to fulfill their responsibilities to assist and protect their own citizens in times of disaster’.

This requires localisation not just to focus on localising the sector but to support state-led solutions, too. This, in turn, necessitates a framing of the role of the international humanitarian system – not as intervenors when there is a lack of capacity, but as fertilisers that could enable such state-led solutions.

What further questions does all this raise for the future of localisation research and practice?

Firstly, it suggests that governments’ centrality in humanitarian response be put back on the localisation agenda. Thus far, localisation efforts are largely being channelled towards localising the sector: improving partnerships between INGOs and national/local NGOs (N/LNGOs) and channelling funding directly towards N/LNGOs. In Nigeria, for instance, a consortium of NGOs developed a national localisation framework where, according to a report, ‘the role of government was barely mentioned’. How might, for example, the Grand Bargain 2.0 better account for government’s role in localisation? How will the national/local state role in humanitarian response factor in donor decision-making?

Secondly, it opens interesting questions on INGO performance against ‘localisation to government’. How might INGOs engage with governments in delivering principled humanitarian assistance, and what evidence is required to demonstrate this? How might we analyse complementarity against the humanitarian framework of intervention when state capacity is overwhelmed? How can we meaningfully evidence a state’s humanitarian capacity?

Finally, further research is needed on the role of INGOs, particularly in ‘fertilising the soil of state-led solutions’. In particular, analysis is needed on the concept of comparative advantage (what INGOs are good at) against the demand for support to build state capability (what is needed). Evidence is also needed on how humanitarian actors can effectively meet this demand.


[1] World Humanitarian Summit. (2015a) WHS Regional Consultation: Latin America and the Caribbean. Bratislava: World Humanitarian Summit.

[2] World Humanitarian Summit. (2014a) WHS Regional Consultation: North and South-East Asia. Tokyo: World Humanitarian Summit.

[3] World Humanitarian Summit. (2015b) WHS Regional Consultation: Middle East and North Africa. Amman: World Humanitarian Summit.

[4] World Humanitarian Summit. (2014b) WHS Regional Consultation: West and Central Africa. Abidjan: World Humanitarian Summit.

[5] Obrecht, A. (2014) ‘De-internationalising’ humanitarian action: Rethinking the ‘global-local’ relationship. Institute de Relations Internationales et Strategiques: Paris

[6] Just before this article was published, the conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray had escalated. The Ethiopian government is party to the conflict. This complicates the analysis for humanitarian response specifically in that region (indeed in the next article I will be looking at contexts where states may be party to the conflict). However, the general argument about the state’s role in achieving humanitarian goals still holds.

[7] Slim, H. (2021) ‘Localization is self-determination’. Frontiers in Political Science, 3.

[8] Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books.

[9] Harvey, P. (2009) Towards good humanitarian disaster response: The role of the affected state in disaster response. London: ODI.

[10] Barbelet, V., Davies, G., Flint, J. and Davey, E. (2021) Interrogating the evidence base on humanitarian localisation. London: ODI.

[11] United Nations. (1991) General Assembly Resolution 46/182: Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance of the United Nations. New York: UN.

[12] Harvey, P. (2009) Towards good humanitarian disaster response: The role of the affected state in disaster response. London: ODI.

[13] Nowell, B., Steelman, T., Velez, A. L. and Yang, Z. (2018) ‘The structure of effective governance of disaster response networks: Insights from the field’. The American Review of Public Administration, 48(7): 699–715.

[14] See, for example, potential of local councils in reaching affected populations in: Stoddard, A., Harvey, P., Czwarno, M. and Breckenridge, M. J. (2020) Humanitarian Access SCORE Report: Northeast Nigeria survey on the coverage, operational reach, and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. New York: Humanitarian Outcomes.

[15] The IDL Group. (2008) Building consensus for social protection: Insights from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). London: DFID.

[16] Bahru, B. A., Jebena, M. G., Birner, R. and Zeller, M. (2020) ‘Impact of Ethiopia’s productive safety net program on household food security and child nutrition: A marginal structural modeling approach’. SSM - Population Health, 12.

[17] Stoddard, A., Harvey, P., Czwarno, M. and Breckenridge, M. J. (2020) Humanitarian Access SCORE Report: Northeast Nigeria survey on the coverage, operational reach, and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. New York: Humanitarian Outcomes.

[18] Wall, I. and Hedlund, K. (2016) Localisation and locally-led crisis response: A literature review. Copenhagen: Local2Global Protection.; Barbelet, V. (2018) As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action. HPG Working Paper. London: ODI.

[19] Barbelet, V. (2018) As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action. HPG Working Paper. London: ODI.

[20] Ang, Y. Y. (2018) ‘Going local 2.0: How to reform development agencies to make localized aid more than talk’. [Blog]. Stanford Social Innovation Review. 8 October. Stanford: Stanford University.[21] World Humanitarian Summit. (2016) The Grand Bargain: A shared commitment to better serve people in need. Istanbul: World Humanitarian Summit.

[22] Barbelet, V. (2018) As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action. HPG Working Paper. London: ODI.

[23] Harvey, P. (2009) Towards good humanitarian disaster response: The role of the affected state in disaster response. London: ODI.; Barbelet, V. (2018) As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action. HPG Working Paper. London: ODI.

[24] UNDP. (2021) Delivering cash transfers digitally amidst Covid-19 in the Philippines. Manila: UNDP.; World Vision. (2020) World Vision provides cash assistance to families affected by COVID-19 Pandemic. Uxbridge: World Vision.

[25] World Bank. (2011) Project performance assessment report: Ethiopia productive safety net. 65249. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

[26] UNDP. (2021) Delivering cash transfers digitally amidst Covid-19 in the Philippines. Manila: UNDP.

[27] Harvey, P. (2009) Towards good humanitarian disaster response: The role of the affected state in disaster response. London: ODI.

[28] United Nations General Assembly (2016) One humanity, shared responsibility: Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit. New York: United Nations.

[29] Key informant interview

[30] Author’s own calculation based on data from: Development Initiatives. (2021) Global humanitarian assistance report 2021. Bristol: Development Initiatives.

[31] Barbelet, V. (2018) As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action. HPG Working Paper. London: ODI.

[32] United Nations General Assembly (2016) One humanity, shared responsibility: Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit. New York: United Nations.

[33] Andrews, M., Pritchett, L. and Woolcock, M. (2017) Building State Capability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[34] Ramalingam, B. (2013) Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[35] Snow, T. (2020) ‘Embracing complexity in government - a story about gardening and thinking in systems’. [Blog]. Centre for Public Impact. 29 June. London: Centre for Public Impact.

[36] For more in-depth discussion on the role of INGOs as intermediaries, see: Lees, J., McCommon, J., Sutton, K., Flint, J., Robinson, L., Low, I., Khan, S. U., Islam, S. A. and Antonios, Z. (2021) Bridging the intention to action gap: The future role of intermediaries in supporting locally led humanitarian action. Melbourne: Humanitarian Advisory Group.

[37] Key informant interview

[38] Andrews, M., Pritchett, L. and Woolcock, M. (2017) Building State Capability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[39] Centre for Public Authority and International Development. (2018) Centre for Public Authority and International Development. Wiltshire: UKRI.

[40] Christoplos, I., Hassouna, M. and Desta, G. (2018) Changing humanitarian practice on localisation and inclusion across the nexus. Situation Report. London: ALNAP.