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World Humanitarian Day 2020: confronting systemic inequality in the sector

Written by Rahima Begum, Youssif El Tayeb, Sylwyn Sheen Alba, Megan Daigle

Hero image description: Groups from INGOs, NGOs, and communities rallied to remember the deceased and demand accountability from the duty bearers on the 1st anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, November 2014. Image credit:NCCP-ACT Alliance / Slywyn Sheen Alba

World Humanitarian Day is an annual opportunity to re-examine our commitment to humanitarianism and reflect on the challenges faced by humanitarian responders and those affected by crises.

To mark this year’s World Humanitarian Day, the Humanitarian Policy Group is sharing a series of opinion pieces from humanitarian leaders in different parts of the world. Their experiences of grappling with a system rife with colonial hierarchies and power imbalances highlight how inequality disempowers local first responders, undermining meaningful solidarity between humanitarians and crisis-affected populations. Listening to their perspectives, it becomes clear that a more equal humanitarian system would not just be more inclusive but also more effective.

The murder of George Floyd in May this year and the subsequent global #BlackLivesMatter protests have also reinvigorated scrutiny of racism and inequality across all areas of society. This movement has amplified conversations about embedded racism in the humanitarian system, and the pressing need to decolonise the aid sector. Structural racism is a theme raised by each of the authors today. As we push the sector towards decolonisation and reform, these contributions call on us to ensure that racism is no longer overlooked in the humanitarian sphere.

Megan Daigle, Senior Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group

Frequently asked questions

Rahima Begum - Building Capacity: Unpacking the Inequalities

In the summer of 2015, 8,000 displaced Rohingya arrived on the shores of Aceh, Indonesia.

The local Acehnese fishermen were the first to respond, providing housing, food and much needed support to survivors, many of whom were deeply traumatised.

This response clearly displays the sheer robustness and potential of local capacity in a state of emergency. However, due to structural inequalities, local capacities are often disregarded by international responders, as are the perspectives of affected people and local actors, to the detriment of the response overall.

International humanitarian agencies often see capacity building in terms of how it fits into their own frameworks. Such frameworks are delivered by paid staff (often from the Global North), while many local responders tend to work without these official strategic plans.

Those local actors whose work fits into international frameworks are seen to be ‘professionalised’, while the capacities of many others are missed, because they do not align with the response of the Global North.

This situation not only breeds confusion and inequality – local actors often work longer hours, at less pay and are made to feel less valued than their foreign colleagues – it also perpetuates a top-down approach.  Eventually, this leads to plateauing of efforts and effectiveness.

This is a clear example of structural inequalities in the international humanitarian system.

The idea that a local response lacks capacity or requires foreign guidance is problematic and has reared itself, at times, as institutional racism. Inequalities exist in working conditions, responsibilities and job accountability between local and international aid workers. There are also issues around local actors’ visibility in reported findings and not garnering credit for exhausting and often underpaid work that leaves them feeling inadequate and less valued. Institutional racism is rife in humanitarian response.

By ignoring the advantages of local actors, international organisations are missing opportunities to make responses more effective. For instance, time and money spent on 'cultural translation' (i.e. understanding cultural sensitivities/norms) could largely be avoided by allowing local actors to impart their own life experiences and share cultural knowledge to enhance the humanitarian response.

Humanitarian responses should first be designed through the lens of the needs and context of affected communities, followed by that of local responders.

In the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, we must make humanitarian response as ‘local as possible, as international as necessary’.

Rahima Begum is the Founding Director of International Human Rights Organisation Restless Beings.

Frequently asked questions

Youssif El Tayeb - Combatting structural racism in the humanitarian sector: a rallying call for decolonisation

The humanitarian sector is in urgent need of change to promote better values and protect the rights of aid workers and individuals affected by crisis.

As aid is mostly received in the Global South, coming from and managed largely by actors in Global North, power imbalances persist and priorities are not determined by disaster victims.

Pay packages and associated benefits also differ enormously between personnel from the Global North and South, even for the same work.

The situation has become so pronounced that accusations are being made about funds that are intended for communities in the Global South, actually being returned to the North through spending on infrastructure for aid workers, private security, materials originating from the North or organisational overheads.

Such discriminatory and disempowering realities push local actors to the margins, denying them the chance to act and making them feel helpless – when in reality, those who are seen as victims respond to immediate needs well before international and external actors arrive. Power remains unchallenged. Discrimination and other negative attitudes lead to non-engagement by locals, leaving responsibility in the hands of the powerful.

The fact remains, however, that those holding power will always be resistant to change, particularly when it may lead to a loss of funding.

For change to happen, the sector must be decolonised, which in turn will increase self-trust among locals and set a new, healthier environment in motion. We are in urgent need of a new culture that will ensure we do not regress into bad practices and enable a system that is free from racism and inequality.

Such revolution should be led by organisations based in the Global North. They are the ones who must ensure the localisation of humanitarian action so that INGOs have to work through national NGOs, therefore creating a culture of genuine partnership for local capacity building and empowerment.

Youssif El Tayeb is Executive Director of the Darfur Development and Reconstruction Agency 

Frequently asked questions

Sylwyn Sheen Alba - Lessons from Typhoon Haiyan: championing local responses during the pandemic and beyond

In the race to respond to humanitarian crises, international actors frequently sideline local responders, conforming to racialised hierarchies within humanitarian action to the detriment of a high-quality response.

Typhoon Haiyan is a case in point. Aside from bringing overwhelming destruction to the country, it also ushered in large numbers of INGOs and expatriates.

National and local NGOs suddenly had to be re-evaluated using standards mostly set by those from the Global North, despite being the first responders on the scene.

Local actors, although welcomed, often felt excluded in humanitarian coordination led by mostly foreign ‘experts’ who dominated the field with their vast resources and technical know-how.

Now is the time to recognise the capacities and advantages of local responders and rebalance power dynamics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised global, but contextualised, challenges. In the Philippines, while INGOs and UN agencies are almost paralysed due to lockdowns, local faith-based and community-based organisations continue to exemplify compassionate service to those in need.

As global funds dwindle, local churches and civil society are mobilising their limited resources to help those bearing the heaviest burdens of the pandemic.

The poor, who are often ‘racialised’ and treated as the ‘other’, have organised themselves and utilised their solidarity to survive. For instance, local communities have set up community kitchens, conducted relief drives, revived barter trade, and even sewn masks for frontline medical workers.

Power imbalances within the humanitarian sector largely depend on resources: while Global North donors influence targets and INGOs set priorities, local actors face meeting deliverables on the frontlines. Humanitarian collaboration must nurture inherent capacities of local actors rather than relying on sub-contracting partnerships. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing donors to rethink who they work with and this opportunity to localise humanitarian action should not be ignored.

A paradigm shift is needed now. ‘Poor communities’ should not merely be regarded as beneficiaries but as first responders capable of deciding their own fate. Indeed, this global crisis has crystalised the very essence of local humanitarian action – a response defined and led by affected communities.

Sylwyn Sheen Alba is a Networking and Advocacy Officer for the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP). NCCP is a member of the ACT Alliance.