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‘All eyes are on local actors’: Covid-19 and local humanitarian action

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Veronique Barbelet, John Bryant, Barnaby Willitts-King

Hero image description: Covid-19 testing in Madagascar Image credit:World Bank/Henitsoa Rafalia Image license:CC BY-NC-ND

The ongoing global pandemic of Covid-19 has caused a substantial shock across the humanitarian sector. Travel and access restrictions meaning that international staff and initiatives cannot be deployed have led to a renewed focus on the role of local humanitarian actors. Will this attention ultimately lead to a fundamental change in the humanitarian system? Will Covid-19 provide the opportunity to shift towards more local humanitarian action?

This briefing note considers the early implications of Covid-19 for driving systemic change towards more local humanitarian action and leadership, and more complementarity between international and local actors.

Key messages

  • Covid-19 is shining a light on the failure of the humanitarian system to reform. This is especially true in regard to the localisation agenda, which has seen only incremental changes towards more local humanitarian action, leadership and complementarity.
  • The pandemic could usher in more local forms of humanitarian action, and greater complementarity between local and international actors. There is anecdotal evidence of change in discourse, commitments and practice at the global and country levels.
  • Major obstacles to fast-tracking the move to more local humanitarian system persist. They include the inability of large organisations to shift to partnership approaches in the midst of the crisis, coupled with funding trends that consolidate rather than shift existing power structures.
  • For meaningful, lasting change to happen, there must be a deliberate decision to take action, confront the inequalities that have relegated local responders to the margins, and embrace the opportunities of this reform agenda.