Localisation re-imagined: Regenerating the polyculture of humanitarianism

‘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 explores the central role of local and national actors in humanitarian response, arguing that their capacity, resources and expertise are too often overlooked by the international system.

Local non-state actors – including civil society organisations, firms and businesses, universities and researchers, voluntary networks, faith communities, and traditional/indigenous associations, among others – have a crucial role in humanitarian action. Not only is this true in contexts where the state may be unable, unwilling, ineffective or sub-optimal in achieving humanitarian goals, but it also applies in recognition of the importance of modes of humanitarianism beyond Weberian/Westphalian models.[1]

National/local actors affirmed this during the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), where they acknowledged that ‘local civil society organizations (CSOs) [have] a central role in response’.[2] They also said that ‘humanitarian action must harness the capacities, resources and expertise of…local responders, the private sector, and diaspora networks, among others’;[3] and they highlighted the ‘fundamental role of academia’ as well as ‘local mechanisms such as markets’.[4]

Five years since the WHS and the Grand Bargain agreement, however, Global South representatives point out that while these events promised ‘greater diversity of partners and in support of local and national actors’,[5] the international humanitarian system remains ‘anything but inclusive, diverse, democratic’.[6]

In the past, there have been different interpretations of localisation, although one in particular – localising the sector – has prevailed. Global South actors, thus, call on the international humanitarian system to ‘connect to a wider range of local and national NGOs (LNNGOs)…including diverse forms of civil society’[7] that are overlooked in the system’s tendency to ‘encourage monoculture’.[8]

In ecology, monoculture is the practice of growing a single crop typically used in intensive farming to maximise efficiency (and, therefore, profit). As we shall see below, a kind of monoculture may also be seen in humanitarian aid, where the international humanitarian system seems to promote a singular version of humanitarian action – usually for the sake of efficiency and narrowly defined effectiveness. And in the same way that growing only one crop can destroy an ecosystem, a monoculture in humanitarian action also appears to have negative effects. 

Having examined how ‘localisation to government’ looks like, in this article I will turn my analysis on localisation’s outcome as supporting local non-state actors (NSAs), including civil society organisations, faith-based groups and the private sector. How might localisation look, particularly in relation to its inclusion of diverse NSAs, if our emphasis shifted away from localising the sector and towards supporting local solutions?   

Using three contexts – Myanmar, Colombia, and local private sector actors (including businesses and the knowledge sector) – where the state is unable, unwilling or sub-optimal, and where local NSAs have stepped up to provide humanitarian assistance, this article asks: how is the monoculture in humanitarian response manifest in how localisation efforts are framed and defined? Can a shift from localising the sector  towards supporting local solutions promote a polyculture of humanitarian action instead? And what does this mean for a research and evidence agenda for locally led humanitarian action?  

Round pegs, square holes 

Localisation was born of an effort to address the domination of international actors in humanitarian response. Some progress was made in shifting resources and decision-making to local actors. Yet, how localisation is predominantly conceived and implemented – that is, localising the sector – appears to propagate the humanitarian monoculture. This is evident in the way that, metaphorically speaking, the round pegs of local NSAs are being made to fit the square holes of the international humanitarian system.  

Even if international actors fund, partner, or engage with local NSAs, the latter are constrained by the former’s requirements to work in a specific way – essentially, to have a specific way of being (this concept of ways of being will be discussed in the next article). For instance, this is seen through ‘humanitarian’ funding mechanisms that would only fund ‘humanitarian’ projects within ‘humanitarian’ timelines in response to ‘humanitarian’ crises. Ho, citing Hyndman, calls this ‘the tensions that exist between local practices and global prescriptions of humanitarianism’.[9]

In Myanmar, the international humanitarian system relies on local civil society to deliver principled humanitarian assistance in part because they see the state, mostly through its military, as party to the conflict.[10]

Modest progress has been achieved in channelling more funding and decision-making to local NGOs. In 2020, 28% of the UN-administered Myanmar Country-Based Pooled Fund (CBPF) was channelled to national organisations, and 25% of seats (three of 12) on the fund’s governance board were allocated to national NGO representatives.[11] But while the international humanitarian system allows access for more funding, the requirements and conditionalities for such funding mean that local organisations are constrained in what they can do to achieve humanitarian goals. 

CBPFs, for instance, have stringent requirements that are ‘demanding, lengthy, opaque processes, often preceded by extensive due diligence requirements and risk assessments, leading to high transaction costs and barriers of entry for many NNGOs’.[12] It is not only UN-administered funds that impose such stringent requirements: Ho cites how one local faith-based organisation in Myanmar used ‘humanitarian’ funding to repair roads (that would have facilitated food distribution), which led to them being admonished by their international NGO partner.

Because the international system has a monocultural idea of how humanitarian response should be, not only are ‘informal’ organisations in Myanmar excluded, but their work is also ignored. A report by Grünewald found ‘many civil society organisations, monks’ associations and individuals react when a disaster strikes,’. Yet the localisation debate among international NGOs has tended to overlook these actors, focusing solely on the question of partnerships with local NGOs.

In Colombia, local/national NGOs (L/NNGOs) themselves describe the government as ‘largely absent and “out of touch”’. Some local actors even prefer to work with international NGOs rather than the state.[13]

Among international actors in the country, the ‘lack of L/NNGOs’ strong administrative and logistic systems to implement humanitarian responses…especially for grassroots organisations’[14] has been cited as a barrier to localisation. This characterisation, however, is incongruent with the fact that Colombia already has a ‘rich civil society’[15] that has – and continues to – work towards achieving humanitarian goals. This includes ‘indigenous organizations, ancestral authorities, peasant organizations, Afro-Colombian organizations, and women’s organizations’, as well as ‘churches and related faith-based organizations…[and] educational actors, such as teachers, rectors, researchers, and universities’.[16]

In this case, having ‘strong administrative and logistic systems’ does not appear to relate to the capacity to implement humanitarian solutions, but rather serves as a prerequisite for partnering with international actors. Presumably this assumes that local actors are risky (in terms of aid diversion or fraud) to begin with – even though evidence suggests these assumptions are not well-founded, and that such risks are largely perception-based.[17]

Colombian non-state actors also ‘expressed some annoyance that international actors seem so focused on defining their work as humanitarian’. Local actors pointed out how the division between humanitarian, development and human rights work is ‘artificial’. This draws attention to the (perhaps undeserved) power of international actors to socially construct a ‘humanitarian crisis’ – even though locals perceive the situations to be long-term, structural problems. One local NGO staff in Colombia says: ‘The humanitarian crisis, we all know, is not born of something spontaneous but is born of something... broken’. A Colombian working for the 'UN affirmed the futility of looking at local humanitarian action without examining the broader contextual issues: “There are many problems that are local, but [are] not resolved locally”.’[18]

This expectation to conform to formal humanitarian practices can also be seen in international actors’ engagement (or lack thereof) with the local private sector. A study by El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Majid and Willitts-King in Yemen found that international actors are suspicious of the non-‘humanitarian’ motivations of local businesses: one participant of that study said that ‘humanitarian organisations are more likely to partner with a local civil society organisation or a local informal group than with a local business because humanitarians remain suspicious of private sector actors and their political and profit-making interests.’

In whose service? 

This compulsion on local NSAs to conform to the formal international humanitarian system, in turn, appears to lead to a kind of localisation where local actors act in service of the international humanitarian system, instead of the system being in service to local actors. 

In Myanmar, for instance, a staff member of a local organisation says that some international actors have a tendency to ‘copy-paste’ interventions, which they expect local actors to implement, ‘without trying to understand local community voice’.[19] As Ho says, ‘the ad hoc and conditional nature of international aid…can be paralysing to the planning purposes of local organizations’.

How localisation is pursued in Myanmar prompted Charter for Change, a Global South-led coalition, to recommend international actors to ‘rethink together the coordination, information-sharing and funding mechanisms, to make them more inclusive and fit for the purpose of enhancing equitable partnership with local and national organizations’.[20]

In Colombia, at a recent localisation forum, the foremost recommendation towards localisation is to ‘guarantee different levels of actors (especially local and community actors) are aware, and involved with the localization topic’ via ‘further training, discussions and events’.[21]

The focus of such effort, it appears, is to bring local actors into the fold of the humanitarian system (for example, by making them aware of the foreign concept of localisation). It does not seem to involve international actors figuring out how to complement the existing work of the ‘rich civil society’ in the country.  

This may explain why in Colombia in particular, ‘there seem to be two parallel systems of humanitarian response, one of which is locally led and one of which is not’ – the latter being the formal humanitarian system which is ‘composed primarily of UN and INGO members’.[22]

In the case of local private sectors around the world, international actors similarly engage them in a way that services the system, rather than in a way that genuinely searches for solutions. This is in part because ‘discussions between aid agencies and private enterprise frequently involve fundraising and public relations personnel rather than the technical experts who could develop more innovative collaboration’.[23] (For instance, the local private sector in Colombia has been identified as a potential partner in providing long-term solutions for refugees, although they are mostly seen as a source of domestic financing for L/NGOs.)[24]

But this is also because in many cases, humanitarian actors engage with the local private sector only as ‘partners in operations but not humanitarian partners’. For example, in Yemen, humanitarian agencies ‘only contract them to transport food and medical assistance from ports to affected communities’[25] with ‘no strategic discussions’. Although as one research study found, local businesses are useful not merely as contractors to humanitarian agencies, but as partners in ‘[looking] for scalable solutions around a challenge by combining their different fields of expertise’.

The ‘McDonaldization’ of humanitarian response? 

Monoculture may be seen as a side effect in making international humanitarian action more efficient and effective, at least as defined within the prevailing paradigm. Pre-packaged interventions allow for rapid response and scale-up. Distilling complex realities into harmonised data facilitates measurement of, say, people’s needs. Technical standards prescribe exactly how those needs must be met. 

But this worryingly corresponds to what Ritzer calls ‘McDonaldization’ in which ‘principles of the fast-food restaurant’ – including efficiency, calculability, predictability and control – come to dominate society. There are now thousands of local McDonald’s in 119 countries, yet each one has mostly the same food and feel – whether it is in Johannesburg or Jakarta. To some extent, the same can be said of the international humanitarian system that largely expands a single culture outward, rather than understanding and supporting distinct cultures of humanitarian values and actions. 

Just as McDonald’s turn local dishes into blander fast-food versions, humanitarian monoculture stifles problem-solving by narrowly defining humanitarian practice. Are we missing out on solutions by investing our attention, efforts and resources only in a narrow set of ‘humanitarian’ activities and actors?  

Humanitarian monoculture also unhelpfully frames the discourse and dilemmas in our sector. For instance, like whether or not local actors can adhere to humanitarian principles, even though the absoluteness of these principles has come under question.[26] Or if local actors can comply to the ‘universal standards of relief’,[27] even if the universality of such standards is debatable. Unhelpful framings such as these similarly stifle humanitarian research. 

Glimpsing the polycultures of humanitarianism 

Too much focus on localising the sector may lead to monoculture, something that is undesirable especially for Global South actors. What does it look like if localisation focuses on supporting local solutions instead? Examples in Myanmar, Colombia, and the private sector offer a glimpse. 

In Myanmar, a consortium of international and local organisations, with funding from Global North institutional donors such as ECHO, established the Rakhine First-line Response Mechanism (R-FRM). This recognises the valuable work of informal actors such as youth groups, parahita networks (of Buddhist monasteries), local women’s rights organisations, and even local traders.

The R-FRM was designed to have the flexibility to provide funding to local actors and self-help groups that would otherwise not be able to receive support from the international humanitarian system. At the same time, for stakeholders of the R-FRM, it is necessary to see beyond ‘humanitarian’ activities to achieve humanitarian goals: they also recommend engaging in ‘raising legal awareness and building the capacity of CSOs and communities on issues around freedom of movement, assembly and expression’.[28]

In Colombia, local faith communities and indigenous-led organisations offer an alternative to the monoculture of a humanitarian response centred on the formal humanitarian system.  

A study by Le Roux and Valencia has found that local churches, with support from an NGO, were able to provide crucial psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors of sexual violence in conflict-affected settings. Also, local faith communities ‘can play a role in the prevention of sexual violence, for religious communities can be spaces where members are influenced in terms of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours’. Churches offer their solutions not because they see the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ per se, but because they see it as part of their pastoral duty. 

Meanwhile, a study by Vitale tells the story of two disaster risk reduction programmes in the indigenous community of Nasa – one implemented by the French Red Cross in partnership with the Colombia Red Cross and funded by the Disaster Preparedness European Community Humanitarian Office (DIPECHO); and another implemented by the indigenous organisation Nasa Çxhaçxha.

The indigenous-led project, in particular, was based on their concept of pervivencia or resilient living, which contextualised disasters as ‘warnings or ruptures in the spiritual equilibrium within their territory’. It accordingly ‘implemented a holistic program, blending spiritual practices and local knowledge of the environment with new information provided by key allies such as geologists from the OSSO Corporation.’[29]

The Red Cross project achieved a ‘modest degree of resilient development but…not to the extent possible’. Also, ‘owing to the breakdown of technical tools of the early warning system (i.e., radios and mud sensors), the gains have not been sustained.’[30] The indigenous programme, on the other hand, was recognised as a success including by scientists and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.  

There are also many instances where the private sector – including local businesses and the local knowledge industry – has come up with solutions that have achieved humanitarian goals. Studies on innovations in low- and middle-income countries in response to COVID-19 offer various examples: Indian entrepreneurs repurposed their facilities to produce masks; in Kenya, a bus operator used a locally developed app for passenger contact tracing;[31] a scientist in Vietnam reallocated funds from his own project to develop a test kit with help from businesses.[32]

While the R-FRM example from Myanmar was a positive one (by enabling diverse local actors to access funding), the examples from Colombia and the private sector may prompt one to ponder whether those local solutions would have emerged and been effective if the local churches, indigenous organisation, researchers, and entrepreneurs were made to conform to the prescriptions of the international humanitarian system. 

Regenerating polycultures? 

The above examples demonstrate the ‘why’ behind localisation: that local civil society actors can provide effective solutions to achieve humanitarian goals. These also show that the ‘what’ of localisation – that is, the provision of support to local actors – is necessary. In Myanmar, a consortium of formal humanitarian agencies (including international ones) were able to channel funding to local grassroots organisations;[33] in Colombia, local faith communities recognised their lack of financial and technical resources in carrying out essential work;[34] local innovators responding to COVID-19 ‘receive a very small share of investment’ and ‘did not receive much attention or support from the international development and humanitarian communities’.[35]

But these examples also prompt further reflection on the ‘how’ of localisation. If localisation is focused on localising the sector – that is, fitting the round pegs of local actors into the square holes of the international humanitarian system – it is hard to imagine how that will be of service to, say, local faith communities, indigenous organisations, or local scientists and entrepreneurs who operate outside the formal humanitarian system. Compelling the latter entities to conform to formal humanitarian processes and norms might lead to a ‘McDonaldization’ that could stifle local solutions. 

This opens up a question ripe for research: in what way can localisation be implemented that does not impose a monoculture, but instead focuses on supporting local solutions through an approach that is – to once again borrow a concept from ecology – regenerative of the polyculture of humanitarian action? One in which local actors can exercise their own ways of being, and in which the international humanitarian system is the one conforming to local realities and needs and acts in local actors’ service? 

Conclusion and further questions 

Local non-state actors – including civil society organisations, grassroots groups, traditional/indigenous bodies, businesses, and scientists/academics – can be effective humanitarian responders, especially given the absence, unwillingness or inability of the state. But current localisation efforts are focused on localising the sector, which inadvertently promotes a monoculture that may hinder local solutions. What, then, does this mean for localisation research and practice? 

The dominance of humanitarian monoculture assumes that this is the best way of working for the sector. But DuBois warns about replicating our sector’s ‘unhealthiest aspects’: ‘A funding model that has already gutted the independence and effectiveness of international NGOs is not best-suited to empower local organisations within their own nations and communities’. Without a counterfactual, this assumption cannot be confirmed. This calls for evidence: how does the dominant paradigm compare to the polycultures of local humanitarianism in terms of achieving humanitarian goals?  

Polycultures reveal how ‘formal and informal structures of interlinked actors sharing common interests or values [hold] tremendous potential for unlocking transformative change’.[36] This moves us on from the quagmire of asking the forever-contested question ‘who is local?’ towards recognising the system of diverse local actors involved in problem-solving. This calls for a more productive inquiry: what can we learn from the dynamics within polycultures of humanitarianism in solving humanitarian problems? 


[1] Pinet, M. and Leon-Himmelstine, C. (2020) ‘How can Covid-19 be the catalyst to decolonise development research?’. [Blog]. From Poverty to Power. 4 June. Oxford: Oxfam.

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

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

[4] World Humanitarian Summit. (2015) WHS Regional Consultation: Latin America and the Carribean. Bratislava: World Humanitarian Summit.

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

[6] Alliance for Empowering Partnership. (2021) WHS five years on - National and local actors: Voices in the humanitarian wilderness? Bangladesh: A4EP.

[7] Charter4Change. (2021) Charter4Change recommendations on Grand Bargain 2.0. London: Charter4Change.

[8] Alliance for Empowering Partnership. (2021) WHS five years on - National and local actors: Voices in the humanitarian wilderness? Bangladesh: A4EP.

[9] Ho, E. L.-E. (2018) ‘Interfaces and the Politics of Humanitarianism: Kachin Internal Displacement at the China–Myanmar Border’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 31(3): 407-425.

[10] Myattun, S., Ignatiou, N., Bergès, E., Shukla, Y., Muani, L. and Hla, T. (2021) Histories and hierarchies of localisation in Rakhine State, Myanmar. London: ODI.

[11] OCHA. (2021) Myanmar humanitarian fund annual report 2020. New York: OCHA.

[12] Carter, B. (2018) Country-based pooled funds for humanitarian financing. East Sussex: IDS.

[13] Robillard, S. C., Maxwell, D., Joseph, T., Grisgraber, D., Farfan, L. D., Mejía, C. E., Gingerich, T. and Jean, I. (2020) Anchored in local reality: Case studies on local humanitarian action from Haiti, Colombia, and Iraq. Boston/Oxford: The Feinstein international Center/Oxfam.

[14] IFRC. (2019) Country-level financing solutions for local actors: Case studies: Colombia, Ethiopia and Ukraine. Geneva: IFRC.

[15] (Ibid.)

[16] Robillard, S. C., Maxwell, D., Joseph, T., Grisgraber, D., Farfan, L. D., Mejía, C. E., Gingerich, T. and Jean, I. (2020) Anchored in local reality: Case studies on local humanitarian action from Haiti, Colombia, and Iraq. Boston/Oxford: The Feinstein international Center/Oxfam.

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

[18] Robillard, S. C., Maxwell, D., Joseph, T., Grisgraber, D., Farfan, L. D., Mejía, C. E., Gingerich, T. and Jean, I. (2020) Anchored in local reality: Case studies on local humanitarian action from Haiti, Colombia, and Iraq. Boston/Oxford: The Feinstein international Center/Oxfam.

[19] Key informant interview

[20] Charter4Change. (2021) Charter4Change recommendations on Grand Bargain 2.0. London: Charter4Change.

[21] OCHA, Colombian Red Cross National Society, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation Colombia and Caritas Colombia. (2021) Country-level dialogue in localization - Colombia. New York/Bogotá: OCHA/Colombian Red Cross National Society/Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation Colombia/.

[22] Robillard, S. C., Maxwell, D., Joseph, T., Grisgraber, D., Farfan, L. D., Mejía, C. E., Gingerich, T. and Jean, I. (2020) Anchored in local reality: Case studies on local humanitarian action from Haiti, Colombia, and Iraq. Boston/Oxford: The Feinstein international Center/Oxfam.

[23] Zyck, S. and Kent, R. (2014) Humanitarian crises, emergency preparedness and response: The role of business and the private sector. London: ODI.

[24] IFRC. (2019) Country-level financing solutions for local actors: Case studies: Colombia, Ethiopia and Ukraine. Geneva: IFRC.

[25] El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, S., Majid, N. and Willitts-King, B. (2017) Private sector engagement in complex emergencies: Case studies from Yemen and southern Somalia. HPG Report. London: ODI.

[26] Clarke, M. (2020) ‘We need new humanitarian principles in response to COVID-19’. [Blog]. Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. 27 April. Burwood: Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. and Slim, H. (2020) ‘You don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian’. [Blog]. The New Humanitarian. 27 August. Geneva: The New Humanitarian.

[27] Taithe, B. and Borton, J. (2016) ‘History, memory and “lessons learnt” for humanitarian practitioners’. European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 23(1–2): 210-224.

[28] Myattun, S., Ignatiou, N., Bergès, E., Shukla, Y., Muani, L. and Hla, T. (2021) Histories and hierarchies of localisation in Rakhine State, Myanmar. London: ODI.

[29] Vitale, R. (2017) ‘Disaster is nature telling us how to live resiliently’: Indigenous disaster risk reduction, organizing, and spirituality in Tierradentro, Colombia. Oxford: Oxfam.

[30] (Ibid.)

[31] Ramalingam, B. and Kumpf, B. (2021) 'COVID-19 innovation in low and middle-income countries'. OECD Development Policy Papers, 39. Paris: OECD.

[32] Klingler-Vidra, R., Tran, B. and Uusikyla, I. (2021) ‘Vietnam and innovation in COVID-19 testing’. BMJ Innovations, 7(Suppl 1): s19–s22.

[33] Myattun, S., Ignatiou, N., Bergès, E., Shukla, Y., Muani, L. and Hla, T. (2021) Histories and hierarchies of localisation in Rakhine State, Myanmar. London: ODI.

[34] Le Roux, E. and Valencia, L. C. (2019) ‘“There’s no-one you can trust to talk to here”: Churches and internally displaced survivors of sexual violence in Medellín, Colombia’. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 75(4).

[35] Ramalingam, B. and Kumpf, B. (2021) 'COVID-19 innovation in low and middle-income countries'. OECD Development Policy Papers, 39. Paris: OECD.

[36] Global Knowledge Initiative. (2017) Locally-led development: Effective problem-solving by increasing capabilities of local networks. Washington, D.C.: Global Knowledge Initiative.

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