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All eyes are on local humanitarian responders during Covid-19 – now they need support

Written by John Bryant


The humanitarian sector has grappled for decades with how best to support and fund local responders. Implementing this ‘localisation’ agenda has proved an uphill battle. Despite the Grand Bargain commitments of international non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and donors signed in 2016, the sector today is still primarily led and financed by these actors. Local responders are often relegated to subordinate implementors. The humanitarian response to Covid-19 has exposed the limits of the current system – but it could prove a catalyst for reform.

Is Covid-19 an opportunity to ‘fast-track’ localisation?

Since the global spread of Covid-19, local humanitarian actors are being recognised for their critical role as never before. As travel restrictions have come into force, grounding international staff and initiatives, local responders have continued to fill a crucial function as those able to access people in humanitarian crises. Advocates of local actors have described Covid-19 as a ‘wake-up call’ for the sector, and argue the process of localisation should be accelerated to meet growing needs.

Covid-19 is already accelerating some trends the humanitarian sector was facing, and many are far from positive. Humanitarian funding was under considerable strain before this crisis. A recent high-profile casualty has been Oxfam International, which recently announced staff cuts and country office closures. At the same time, its Interim Executive Director recommitted the organisation ‘to deepen our relationships with local partners everywhere’ – suggesting that needing to reduce front-line delivery could also be an opportunity to make the sector more locally-led.

With international organisations having to retreat, Covid-19 may open up other chances to shift. But while there’s currently a lot of positive talk, localisation will only happen if international and local actors seize the opportunity to enact real changes. What needs to happen to advance this process?

Local responders need funding – and to be included

Getting the right funding to local organisations has been a key stumbling block in efforts to localise responses. International organisations still take by far the biggest share and initial rounds of funding for Covid-19 look much the same, with just 0.1% reported going to local actors. Local organisations need more if they are to deliver on their critical roles. There are a few positive signs: some government and UN agency donors have said their international partners must pass on the same rates of overhead costs afforded to them to those local organisations they partner with. But these examples are rare.

At the same time, it isn’t all about the money. A crisis such as Covid-19 highlights the shortcomings of a humanitarian sector that is overly exclusive about who it works and partners with.

For example, though they are important responders during crisis, international actors have often left governments out of the localisation conversation. Governments across the world are leading the response to Covid-19, so it’s vital to engage to hold them to account and advocate for the needs of the most vulnerable. Local responders – who tend to work less in the often arbitrary silos that divide humanitarian responses from the rest of development – can be better placed to have these constructive relationships.

For many international organisations, limits on access have traditionally meant remote management, leaving subcontractors to continue aid delivery at increased risk but with little say in how programmes are designed and run. Getting out of this default approach will be important for furthering localisation. For those international actors working through more equitable partnerships, long-standing relationships with local counterparts will be critical to working effectively during this crisis. International organisations should also advocate for local actors to be better represented in decision-making fora, and brought into coordination bodies to inform global and national response strategies.

The power of donors in incentivising localisation shouldn’t be underestimated. Donors tend to have stringent rules around partnering with humanitarian organisations to reduce fiduciary and reputational risk. These tend to work against funding and support for local actors, and are unlikely to change with Covid-19. International actors need to advocate for those they’ve partnered with, and work with donors to manage their accountability requirements innovatively.

Local actors are already faced with formidable challenges in responding to crises. They must now contend with access constraints, the need to maintain distancing and broken supply chains. But they are also well placed to find innovative ways to adapt and advocate for change – provided they are afforded the support and funding to do so.

We need to record how local actors are responding effectively

As recent Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) research has illustrated, the capacities of local organisations remain under-valued. They still have to prove themselves to become ‘trusted partners’ of donors and international organisations. Local capacities and responses have been downplayed: too often, prominent international actors have taken the visibility and the credit at their expense.

While we have anecdotal evidence of how local actors are supporting their communities, there should now be a real effort to document and showcase good practises. To help, HPG has launched an online mapping tool to document the contributions of local actors during Covid-19. We’ll also be exploring how this crisis is impacting partnerships and the humanitarian system in an upcoming online event that will also launch our summary report of two years of research on local humanitarian responses.

The next few months and years will place a huge burden on the global humanitarian system and we could see dramatic shifts in how it works. Supporting the many local responders that have always worked in emergencies but are now prominent will help get the system out of its current paralysis – and mitigate the impact of this crisis.