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Rethinking capacity and complementarity for a more local humanitarian action

Research reports

Written by Veronique Barbelet

Hero image description: Burundian refugees play checkers at Kamvivira transit centre, DRC Image credit:Eduardo Soteras Jalil/UNHCR Image license:© Eduardo Soteras Jalil/UNHCR

Humanitarian action has been a mainly international endeavour, where power continues to lie with donors, UN agencies and large INGOs. This led to a call at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 for humanitarian action to be as ‘local as possible, as international as necessary’, which has inspired numerous debates and initiatives, including the Grand Bargain.

Among the challenges to a more local humanitarian action have been two central issues: capacity and complementarity. On the one hand, international and national actors have called for more recognition of existing local capacity and support to strengthen it – through more direct and better-quality funding as well as investment in capacity strengthening.

On the other hand, some international actors (including donors) have voiced concerns over a lack of local capacity in many contexts. In the localisation debate, there is a growing discourse calling for a new division of labour between local and international actors, in order to bring about greater complementarity, which is primarily concerned with rebalancing power relations in the humanitarian sector.

To better inform humanitarian action that is as local as possible and as international as necessary, the Humanitarian Policy Group at Overseas Development Institute launched a two-year research project on capacity and complementarity in 2017. The project explored two central questions:

  • How can capacity be better understood and applied to support more complementary and collaborative humanitarian responses?
  • What are the opportunities for and obstacles to harnessing the capacity of and forging more effective complementarity among local, national, regional and international actors responding to humanitarian crises?

This report draws on research conducted during the project, including an initial paper reviewing literature and practice that provides a diagnosis of current challenges; a case study on the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, which delves deeper into questions of localisation in a refugee context; and a case study on the humanitarian response to conflicts in South Kivu and Kasai Central in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which looks at capacity and complementarity in protracted and emerging conflict contexts.

Veronique Barbelet