Be careful what you wish for

Will local NGOs fall into the same traps as their northern cousins?

We know that money can’t buy love. We know that money can’t buy happiness. But money can buy the allegiance of an NGO, and it can buy aid work that responds to the strategic interests of the donor rather than the human needs on the ground. It can buy a place in the crosshairs of your donor’s enemy.

We know that it can buy these things because we know that it already buys these things. It is precisely the consequences of this purchase – the frequently late, supply-sided, partisan response of international humanitarian organisations – that are fuelling a major shift in resources to local humanitarian responders (aka “localisation”). But if more money flows to local NGOs, will it just replicate the unhealthiest aspects of aid funding in a new way?

Although the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit produced much critical comment, pundits seem to agree on one clear win: the localisation agenda, a central commitment whereby the heavy, top-down international humanitarian aid system will be retooled, in large part by channelling “25 percent of financing to national and local responders as directly as possible by 2020”.

Policy makers have long been clear on what is needed: rapid, flexible, multi-year funding (an earlier reform package, the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship agreement, has largely foundered). As an OECD study concluded, there are “powerful institutional disincentives to ‘doing things differently,’” unless there’s “political leadership and explicit and predictable backing from the highest institutional levels.”

It is difficult to argue against the empowerment of local actors and communities to respond when crisis strikes at home. That said, the problem lies not in the excitement generated by localisation but in the uniformity of this excitement: winner, winner, winner.  The critical rhetoric from the southern NGO community makes often powerfully accurate accusations of neo-colonialism, paternalism and ‘cookie-cutter’ projects that miss specific needs. The problem lies in a localisation agenda now overly focused on funding streams. And the problem lies in the Faustian nature of this Grand Bargain.

A funding model that has already gutted the independence and effectiveness of international NGOs is not best-suited to empower local organisations within their own nations and communities. Even if funding becomes less rigid, as HERE-Geneva’s recent report observes, “flexible funds are an important necessity for humanitarian actors. They are, however, no magic formula for independence.” [Disclaimer: I am the lead author of the HERE report].  

Beyond risks, the conversation surrounding localisation needs to be more conspicuously ambitious. Can we not imagine local NGOs choosing a different model, such as one based upon Médecins Sans Frontières’ dedication to private rather than governmental donors?  When will we see an organisation named Fundraising without Borders to support the growth of an independent NGO sector in the Global South?

Even recognising the extent to which local organisations have been consistently marginalised within the system, one can only hope that their radical critique will extend to funding issues as well. The calculated gambit that “money-is-power” advantages outweigh “ends-justify-the-means” negatives is a dangerous one.  

Here is what we must avoid: transformation of the NGOs and CBOs of the Global South into auxiliaries of the Global North, as executors of the ‘soft power’, fulfillers of the national (security) interests of the Western powers, partners of the same global private sector that has driven underdevelopment and inequality, and advancers of both the neo-liberal and liberal agendas.   

The Grand Bargain raises the following questions for local NGOs, who might still be able to choose a different course.

When disaster strikes, do you want to launch a response or begin filling out funding appeals? The capacity of the sector to respond to rapid onset emergencies or to act in pre-emptive fashion, preventing rather than alleviating crisis, remains critically ineffective.

When the situation changes, will you follow the needs or plough through your contractual obligations (e.g., building Ebola Treatment Centres that will never see a patient)? ,

Will you implement bold programming that tries out new approaches and prioritises reaching those furthest behind, or bland programming that is most likely to fulfill the contract on time? As this study found, institutional donors’ need for financial accountability has created “a stifling culture of compliance and risk aversion”.

How much of your organisational machinery can be devoted to delivering aid and protection to populations in crisis rather than to obtaining, handling and reporting on these funds? Recent ICVA research details the transformation of aid work to aid bureaucracy, and its particular impact on small NGOs.

How will you reach those most in need if you are funded by a militarily active foreign government (e.g., in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia), or where perceptions of alignment with the West (or even the UN) might undermine trust in your intentions?

What will you do if elderly IDPs need urgent programming, but funding is only available for children and maternity activities? Supply-driven programming has long demonstrated difficulties in adapting to the needs on the ground and blocked contextualization of the response.

The potential of the WHS to deliver on the promise of localisation – that humanitarian aid be locally-driven and locally-owned – must be rescued from its narrow and counterproductive focus on achieving the target of 25 percent of funding to be passed directly to local actors (not to mention the pragmatic challenges related to such a stunning scaling up). We must engage in a more critical analysis of the strategies necessary for its achievement. Otherwise, the risk is that the post-WHS localisation will replicate too many of the very flaws that have long plagued the performance of INGO and UN agencies and hence left behind people in crisis.

In short, will the massive shift of funding to local organisations help make aid more responsive to people’s needs, or will he who pays the piper continue to drown out that tune?

Currently an independent humanitarian consultant, analyst and blogger, Marc spent 15 years at Médecins Sans Frontières, and was the executive director of MSF-UK (2008 to 2014).

(TOP PHOTO: Water catchment project, Uganda IRIN/Glenna Gordon)

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