Some years ago, way back in 2006 in fact, I met a journalist from Sri Lanka at the UN in Geneva. We were both there to cover peace talks between Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil Tiger rebels. The talks ended in failure, but conversations with my colleague were interesting. Fresh in his mind was the Asian tsunami, and his perception of the UN response in Sri Lanka.
“They came in, went straight to the upmarket car dealers, bought up a load of four-wheel drives and drove around in them,” he said. His comments were not praise: he viewed the UN aid workers as arrogant, uncommunicative strangers.
Almost a decade later, ‘local’ is the buzzword within the humanitarian community. Local actors are often the most effective in responding to humanitarian crises, but tend to receive little recognition and less money for their efforts. ‘Localising’ aid operations by building local capacity and funding local groups directly is a major focus of the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul next year.
But why hasn’t it happened yet?
Launched today in Geneva, this year’s edition of the World Disasters Report, an independent publication commissioned annually by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to examine major trends in humanitarian response, tries to answer that question.
Time and money
Financing is a key reason that so many local aid agencies remain in “struggle street”, as IFRC Under Secretary General Robert Tickner put it: of more than $20 billion in emergency aid given to the UN and international, regional and national agencies annually, just 0.2 percent goes to local groups, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance programme.
One reason, suggests Mo Hamza, the editor of the report, is that the criteria for awarding funding are the same whether you are a big multimillion-dollar player in the humanitarian field, or a tiny NGO working at the village level.
“Imagine you are a small Afghan NGO and you are subjected to about 20 assessments in order to ensure you are legitimate and fit for purpose,” said Hamza, who is also a professor of disaster risk management at the University of Copenhagen.
“We have to adapt the level of [reporting] requirements to the level of funding,” added David Loquercio, head of policy at the Core Humanitarian Standards Alliance. “At the moment everyone has to jump through the same hoops.”
The report stresses that financial transparency and accountability remain crucial, but Hamza argues that applying the same checks against fraud, money laundering, and even financing of terrorism to a tiny local NGO as you would to a big international aid agency is simply not sensible.
A regulatory gap?
The report describes international law governing disaster response as “piecemeal”.
The legal frameworks that do exist assign the primary role in disaster response to the governments of affected countries, yet “many (governments) feel that they are not really in the driver’s seat” and do not have access to international decision-making bodies like the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a grouping of UN agencies, the Red Cross movement, and NGO consortia that serves as the central policy-making body of the humanitarian community. In addition, international regulations do not specifically mention local NGOs or civil society organisations.
A failure to understand or at least navigate domestic regulations governing what international aid agencies can or can’t do in specific countries has obstructed efficient cooperation between international and national actors.
In the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, for example, international aid agencies found that crucial electronic equipment such as satellite phones languished for days at borders, because the relevant permits for importing them had not been applied for or granted.
Politics and vested interests
In failed states, engaged in complex civil conflicts, or where a disaster implicates different vested local interests, involving water or land rights for example, partnering with local groups can become even more challenging.
In what aid agencies describe as a “wicked problem”, working with one local group may alienate another. Identifying what looks like the perfect solution may actually damage – or be perceived as damaging – one group’s vested interest.
“Don’t romanticise the capacity of local actors,” Loquercio warned. “Their situations are very different.”
National politics in recipient countries can also be a major stumbling block. Some local aid agencies may be seen as the perfect partners by international players, but are not recognised – or are restricted and even prohibited – by national governments.
Issues such as gender rights, HIV prevention and assistance for intravenous drug users have all proved very tricky in some contexts. And despite the ever-louder calls for transparency, openness, and cooperation, most international aid agencies are reluctant to publicly criticise domestic government policies.
“Politics: that is a whole different ball game,” said Hamza. “I’m not sure the international community can get engaged in that.”
There are also parts of the world, Syria being the prime example, where international aid agencies find it virtually impossible to work because of the security situation. The entire aid operation, with all its inherent risks, is borne by local actors instead. International agencies provide money and supplies but direct the operation from the safe distance of another country or from behind the barbed wire of a compound.
Hamza describes such operations as “a reality that nobody can escape” and no longer an option of last resort.
Nevertheless, remote management is not what aid reformers had in mind when they called for shifting the balance of power to local actors: funding and decision-making tend to stay in the hands of the international agencies.
Instead, the World Disasters Report 2015 calls for a much more equal partnership, in which local capacity is recognised and strengthened before disaster strikes, in line with steps like the 2007 endorsement by humanitarian organisations of the Principles of Partnership.
And yet, the report says, a shift in mindset is still required by international humanitarian agencies that “seem to expect that governments are either unwilling or unable to respond to the needs of their people and that both national and local actors do not have the appropriate response capacity”.