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Covid-19 and local humanitarian action: five emerging trends


Written by Alexandra Spencer

Hero image description: Covid-19: tracking local humanitarian action and complementary partnerships Image credit:Tekja

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the international humanitarian sector to adapt to a different operational reality, with many international staff unable to travel and access affected communities. A renewed focus on the role of local actors offers an opportunity to turn this rhetoric into action, and provide more funding, support and recognition for national humanitarian responders.

Capturing evidence of changes is important. It not only helps inform future programming, funding decisions and details lessons learnt, but also makes a case for future support to national responders.

The Humanitarian Policy Group’s (HPG) new mapping tool is capturing some of these changes in real-time. Using an online survey and a review of publicly available sources, it documents how Covid-19 is triggering change in the humanitarian system towards more local humanitarian action, local leadership and partnerships between international and national responders.

What is the data telling us so far?

The tool currently showcases a collection of examples from 30 countries. There are five key trends emerging from the data so far.

1. Local actors are taking a lead role in communication and community engagement in the Covid-19 response

In South Sudan the 211CHECK fact-checking platform, operated by a grassroots community of volunteers, promotes awareness of the virus and prevents the spread of misinformation. In Bangladesh, Covid-19 brigades broadcast community risk awareness messages and barrier measures from megaphones. These messages are delivered in local languages and, in some cases, operated on familiar or previously used messaging or information sharing platforms, allowing for easier dissemination in affected communities.

This data shows the unique role local actors play. It echoes HPG's previous findings on their centrality to the Covid-19 response and past public health responses, in particular during the West Africa Ebola outbreak. It’s a stark reminder that we need to better consolidate the ‘localisation’ and ‘participation revolution’ reform agendas through the Grand Bargain process.

2. Local actors lead emergency and food provisions

Local and national responders play a vital role in the delivery of food and non-food items, including personal protection equipment (PPE). In Myanmar and Niger, supplies were provided by volunteers who had the ability and means to access food when travel restrictions and/or rising food prices prevented some people in the community from accessing provisions for themselves.

Complementarity and partnerships with international organisations helped facilitate some of these responses. Through the C19NALPER programme, Christian Aid partnered with organisations in Afghanistan and Nigeria to ensure their programme delivering food, as well as healthcare and sanitation supplies, was implemented through trusted local actors.

3. Local leadership of coordination efforts is critical

Evidence from groups coordinating the main areas of humanitarian action like water, health and protection (clusters) suggests the cluster coordination system has a role to play in supporting a more localised approach, as HPG's past research also found.

The Child Protection Sub-Cluster – at both the global and field level – has reported that co-leadership with local actors and the introduction of local action policies are encouraging a more localised response. Street Child in collaboration with the Global Child Protection Sub-Cluster financed the initial phases of a Rapid Response Fund led by national NGO LUKMEF in Cameroon. Here, they were able to identify partners for education and child protection activities which reached 65,000 affected people.

4. Existing networks and partnerships are pivotal in supporting local humanitarian action

Existing networks and partnerships were commonly noted as enabling local and national organisations to respond to the evolving context. The ability to work with partners or trained volunteers has allowed programming to happen more swiftly, especially in hard-to-reach areas. For example, the Shared Aid Fund for Emergency Response was able to provide funds to a pre-existing consortium of local humanitarian partners who ultimately reached 1,400 families in need of support in Manila.

5. Funding has a multifaceted role in enabling local humanitarian action

We found evidence that access to funding for local humanitarian action has been facilitated in three key ways:

  1. the capacity to raise funds in-country or from the community
  2. extended flexibility of funding arrangements given the pandemic and changing environment
  3. the availability of new funds for NGOs or local actors.

National NGO Santé & Développement in the Democratic Republic of Congo self-financed through locally raised funds, and the STAR Ghana Foundation reallocated funds from the then UK Department for International Development (DFID) so they could adapt their programmes to the challenges of Covid-19, such as buying protective equipment or delivering emergency food and sanitation supplies. Trust Africa’s new Covid-19 Africa Solidarity Fund also offers new financing options for those responding to the crisis.

Is Covid-19 the disruptor the humanitarian system needs?

Covid-19 is an opportunity for the humanitarian system to move forward on commitments to enable local humanitarian action. Even at this early stage, data shows that local humanitarian action is mitigating the crisis by responding to the immediate needs of affected communities. Continued recognition of the role local responders play, and extended financial and technical support for their activities, are crucial for deeper and longer-lasting change.

Documenting the response is critical to understand what – if anything – is changing within the humanitarian system, and in what ways. Most importantly, it can tell us what factors are enabling it to happen and what challenges remain.

HPG is updating the mapping tool regularly. If you’d like to contribute examples of local humanitarian response and how you’re working with international partners throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we encourage you to submit evidence via our online survey.