The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo on humanitarian and development delivery, putting a rocket under both sceptics and supporters of localisation. Meanwhile, #BlackLivesMatter and the #decolonising aid movements gained momentum and USAID is attempting major reform.
We ask three Australian practitioners for their practical take on localisation and its implications for development and humanitarian practice.
Localisation isn’t new. It’s been at the heart of discussions on humanitarian reform for over a decade. Locally-led development has been core to development reform as well. And yet it took a global pandemic to turn the entrenched power dynamics preventing localisation on their heads. What’s left is an exciting space for genuinely locally-led humanitarian and development action in our region. There is much to learn from these changed power dynamics to inform Australia’s future development program and foreign relations under a new Government.
Local leaders in the Pacific seized the opportunity afforded by COVID-19 to set their own national priorities and lead on all aspects of aid delivery – activities all too often controlled by donors. Of all that I have watched over the last decade on localisation, this has been the most significant disruption. But for this positive disruption to last, donors must make deliberate changes to systems (including funding), institutions and individual behaviours.
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest humanitarian donor (USAID) has put its money where its mouth is, promising 25% of its development dollar to local organisations, and 50% of its aid funding to put local communities in the lead. USAID administrator Samantha Power made clear that the agency will need to address traditionally unequal power relationships and that donor business models need to change. These moves should not be underestimated and are likely to apply pressure on other donors including Australia to step up localisation efforts and listen to voices from the region who have called for these changes time and time again.
Fiona has been beating the drum on localisation, aid effectiveness and humanitarian action for more moons than we can count. At the Lab, we value Fiona’s inquiring mind. She is starting a PhD on humanitarian governance in Asia and the Pacific, taking a short break from her role as Head, International Advocacy at Australian Red Cross.
We know that a localised response to a crisis can provide more timely, appropriate, cost effective and sustainable assistance when it comes to saving lives. Ensuring that each dollar is effective has pushed the international humanitarian system to recognise the importance of local leadership. But what really works best, is not donors or advocates pushing localisation, but often getting out of the way. In terms of supporting this process of localisation, our research with Pacific partners acknowledges there are different paths that various countries follow in taking (back) the reins of humanitarian leadership.
Getting out of the way and supporting the process of localisation requires a careful blend of acknowledging power dynamics and removing practical barriers. The international humanitarian system is not separate from social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo – which recognise the inherent inequality in systems and structures of governance. Harmonised reporting, including administrative costs, being transparent about what funding is available when, and providing flexible multi-year funding are all practical ways to support local humanitarian actors.
But it's not just about the money. Localisation is built on participation, partnerships, and policy influence. This requires an increase in both donor capacity and risk appetite in order to properly understand and engage with local humanitarian actors. It also requires a real commitment to engaging with communities. International NGO Danish Refugee Council (DRC) leads the way in this area, having developed new guidance on how to develop effective and responsive community feedback mechanisms, a key area to boost accountability. This allows the priorities, concerns and ideas of crisis affected communities to be heard and incorporated into programs in real time. Such mechanisms can also counter disinformation, identify human rights abuses and boost interagency coordination. These are the kinds of initiatives we all need to get on board with. Although the dial has shifted on localisation, it’s worth pushing further.
Beth is a class act on all things humanitarian action. If you ever get the chance to hear Beth speak, take it – she’s articulate, experienced and agenda setting in her thinking. At the Lab, we’re big fans of the Humanitarian Advisory Group’s social enterprise model and keen followers of their work.
The first step to localisation is accepting that development is an inherently political, rather than technical, process. For donors, this means steering clear of anything that looks, feels or smells like a grand idea with no local support for it. That’s because in all the years I have worked in development, I have never once seen sustainable change made that is not deeply embedded within a country’s political and social context. So, if we’re serious about localisation, that means understanding who the local change-makers are, who holds power, what vested interests are being threatened and how to influence positive change within this context. This inevitably means local actors are the only actors that can genuinely understand these dynamics and catalyse change within them. The Balance of Power initiative is an excellent example of a program designed with this understanding in mind.
The second step to localisation is to identify local actors that are committed to the development of their country and enable them to lead and shape the thinking, conversations and actions that will bring this about. This means enabling them to shape ‘our’ thinking too – something often overlooked. Knowing how to identify such actors requires more than an ad in the paper or a standard recruitment process – it means a reimagining of the usual qualities that development programs look for. Political nous, personal motivations and innovative thinking are far more important than project management experience.
Finally, thought must be given to how donor requirements can still be met through localised approaches. This may mean building in the necessary scaffolding to ensure that locally-led development programs are still able to provide the reporting, data, quality assurance and risk management to satisfy donor requirements. This is where actors that are expert at providing such scaffolding – including international contractors, consultants and NGOs – can play a role as the bridge between donors and locally-led change. Importantly, this must be done in a way that is directed by local leaders, respecting their strategic direction and enhancing their vision rather than undermining it. This can only happen when the systemic power dynamics underpinning international development are understood and grappled with by the individuals and organisations involved. Where this is achieved, the settings are in place for genuine, lasting development to occur.
Jo is an adroit development leader whose mind whirs with questions, ideas and inspiration. At the Lab, we love that Jo isn’t afraid of tough conversations or hard questions and we call on her superpowers often.