The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016 led to a voluntary commitment of major governmental donors and international relief agencies, known as the ‘Grand Bargain’. One key commitment isto provide “more support and funding tools for local and national responders”. This has become known as ‘localisation’.

Over the past year, the precise and practical meaning of ‘localisation’ has generated a lot of focused work but also intensive debate. Both the term ‘localisation’, and the debate, are confusing to many.

In a new paper,  with Smruti Patel, we set out the main parameters of the debate, map out some of the controversies, and identify principal reasons why it remains so confusing. 

We look at what problem(s) with how the international relief machinery operates, localisation is supposed to mitigate, and the different interpretations of localisation this can give rise to. We consider the main arguments against an over-reliance on national capacities, but also some of the counter-arguments to these. We assert that the, legitimate, debate, will remain stuck if it continues to be waged in generalised, rather than more contextualised, terms. We are also concerned that the prominence of the ‘25% of global funding to national and local actors’ commitment, while highly relevant, also risks turning it, once again, into a competition over money. Like other international ‘statements’, the text of the ‘Grand Bargain’ document, also comes with the imprecise language that is needed to obtain consensus. The resulting discussions over the precise interpretation of key phrases is inevitable, but should not distract from the broader strategic analysis and strategic purpose question, that gave rise to the ‘localisation’ idea in the first place.



LOCALISATION & NGOs: Different Interpretations, Different Outcomes

Last year, during a flight from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, the airline crew made an appeal, on behalf of ActionAid India, for donations to support the flood victims in South India. It struck me that it was ActionAid India rather than another ‘Indian’ organisation and I wondered whether other organisations in India would have had the idea and the access to the domestic airline, to raise funds this way? Is this a silly question? Why does it matter?

1.     What is the ‘Localisation Agenda’?

Well, it goes to the heart of one of the big questions that is likely to bedevil the ‘localisation’ agenda that emerged through the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) process. The central drive behind ‘localisation’ is transforming the international humanitarian ‘system’. In its current shape, it is seen as too centralised, with a small number of agencies receiving the bulk of the funding, and international responders too often taking over and turning local and national actors into their ‘auxiliary force’. ‘Localisation’ would result in a global humanitarian system where national and local actors remain at the forefront and lead the action, and receive a much larger share of the available funding directly, rather than via international ‘fundingmediaries’.  In this reversed configuration, the international actors are the ‘auxiliary force’, helping to implement the strategies and programmes of national/local actors where their capacities are overstretched.

In an earlier blog (see below) I unpacked the ‘localisation’ process into four major areas of change: the funding streams, the visibility of national actors and their contribution, the quality of ‘partnerships’, and the objective and effectiveness of ‘capacity development’ for national actors. So far, we don’t yet have agreed benchmarks and progress indicators to tell us how we are doing for each of these change objectives. Except for one concrete and measurable target: Whereas today less than 2% of the annual global spent on humanitarian action goes directly to national actors, by 2020 this will be 25%.

Tracing and measuring the financial flows will pose some technical and reporting challenges, but at face value this is a solvable problem. The exercise is likely to become controversial however, for two reasons. One has already been pointed out by others: the insertion of ‘as directly as possible’ in the ‘Grand Bargain’ document that summarises the WHS outcomes. Who determines this?  If by 2020 most humanitarian funding continues to go to international agencies as ‘first receivers’, this little qualifier can open many loopholes for excuse. The second one is no less tricky: Who qualifies as ‘national/local’?

2.     Identity: Who Is ‘National/Local’?

The Grand Bargain document refers explicitly to “national and local first responders comprising governments, communities, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and local civil society”.

The Grand Bargain document doesn’t mention a category of NGO that appears in the categorisations of the Global Humanitarian Assistance programme: “southern international NGOs”. ‘Southern’ here refers to the fact that their headquarters are not in an OECD DAC member country. BRAC from Bangladesh, the All India Disasters Management Institute or Community World Service Asia would be examples. When BRAC responds in Bangladesh or CWSA in Pakistan, they act as ‘national’ agencies. When they act in Afghanistan, they are regional / international. That is no different than when e.g. the Johanniter in Germany provide services nationally, compared to when they work abroad. The financial tracing system should become sufficiently refined then to differentiate when a ‘southern’ agency is operating ‘nationally’ or ‘internationally’. That is doable.

A question poses itself however: Is there a meaningful difference between ‘southern’ NGOs working regionally or more widely, and the original international ones from OECD DAC countries, that needs to be recognised in the ‘localisation’ effort and in assessing its progress?

The Grand Bargain document also doesn’t mention another category of actors that the Global Humanitarian Programme (GHA) defines as ‘affiliated national NGOs’ i.e. nationally operating NGOs that are affiliated to an international NGO. ActionAid India fits into this category. So too e.g. Caritas Sri Lanka, Save the Children Jordan, CARE Peru. This leads to the second question: Do they count as ‘national’?

The Grand Bargain document is not a legal document. And it hasn’t even been endorsed by many governments and other important actors in the humanitarian ‘system’. But we can anticipate some vigorous debate, perhaps controversy, about who counts as ‘national/local’, or ‘how national’ an agency is.  Particularly among civil society agencies.

3.     The Business of Localisation.

Who will benefit from ‘localisation’? That is, literally, a multi-billion-dollar question in an industry worth some $ 24.5 billion in 2014.  A quarter of global humanitarian spending by 2020 going directly to national/local actors, is likely to mean significant income loss for the international actors, including the UN, who until now have been ‘first receivers’ and kept a % for their transaction costs before sub-granting it to others.  Some have argued that ‘localisation’ need not be a financial zero-sum game, because it will open up new sources of funding for humanitarian action. Apart from the question whether it is not preferably to invest more in prevention than in response, that remains to be seen.

We can also expect latent or overt financial competition between national governmental and non-governmental actors. In conversations about development aid, various aid receiving national governments in recent years have taken a more assertive stance. They have argued that they want more aid to go through the ‘national country systems’ i.e. their coffers, and not via parallel projects that often get implemented with national non-governmental actors. Several governments are also restricting the proportion of international funding that national CSOs can receive as part of their total annual turnover.

4.    Localisation: A technical or a political agenda?

The financial stakes of ‘localisation’ are likely to reveal two opposing interpretations.

Interpreted as a technical agenda, ‘localisation’ means ‘decentralisation’: Let those in greatest proximity to the crisis have the lead in designing and implementing the response, and support them with the financial, organisational and collaborative capacities to do so. That framing can be found in the Secretary General’s report on the ‘Outcome of the WHS’: “to devolve leadership and decision-making to levels at closest proximity to crises.” (§36)

Or ‘localisation’ is interpreted as a political agenda. Its meaning is then well expressed by the title of a project called ‘Shifting the Power’. Here localisation seeks a deeper change in the political economy of (humanitarian) aid. Local and national actors demand not only an operational lead, and more, direct, and better quality funding. They also assert themselves more widely within the overall global politics and policies of international aid-based cooperation. In South African terms: they want a landscape once dominated by a white minority transform into a rainbow nation.

5. The Politics of Identity?

Why does this matter? Because how you interpret ‘localisation’ leads to very different outcomes.

Under a technical interpretation, an international NGO can argue that, if their country office is registered in the crisis-affected country, and led or even fully staffed by ‘nationals’, it should count as a ‘national/local capacity’. With its proximity and staffing, it is equally well placed to be a fast, effective, and contextually sensitive responder as any home-grown organisation. The ‘nationalisation’ of INGO country offices then constitutes progress towards ‘localisation’.

Under a technical interpretation, an international NGO alliance can also argue that funding that goes directly to its national affiliate, constitutes progress towards ‘localisation’. It has the same proximity advantages. Moreover, it is a separate legal entity, registered in country not as the office of an international agency but as a full domestic agency (probably under another Ministry) and is not only staffed but also governed by nationals. 

In a ‘technical’ interpretation, the reform of the international humanitarian system then becomes something like Starbucks or McDonalds: international brands with local franchises. But Starbucks and McDonalds are competitors for truly local or national cafés and eateries. Such ‘localisation’ can be interpreted as simply a business strategy of multinational (aid-based) corporations. Localisation becomes de facto a strategy of globalisation. It doesn’t really shift any ‘power’ and may continue to undermine national/local capacities by establishing itself more forcefully in local markets.

Not surprisingly, a number of national agencies that are not part of an international alliance or network, i.e. that are not ‘affiliated national NGOs’ object to these interpretations. They argue that the international connection, under either of the above formulas, gives those agencies an ‘unfair’ advantage. There is not a level playing field. They want only truly ‘homegrown’ entities recognised as ‘national/local’, and the beneficiary of more and better quality funding and real organisational development support.

6.    How ‘Local’ Are You?

If the above is already enough to feed a prolonged debate, it gets further complicated by the different historical trajectories that lead an agency to being an ‘affiliated national NGO’. There are essentially three main ones, one outside-in and two inside-out:

·       Outside-in: Possibly for several years already, an international NGO has been running programmes in a country, probably already with a registered INGO office. This then transforms, or splits off,  into a legally independent national member of an international family or alliance.

·       Inside-out: An existing local or national agency accepts to change its historical identity and become part of the international alliance. That is a choice made previously by some INGOs, e.g. NOVIB which chose to become Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands. But is now also happening with existing ‘southern’ agencies. (A friend told me a story how, many years ago, Oxfam UK asked BRAC from Bangladesh whether it would not want to become Oxfam Bangladesh? The BRAC person replied: Why wouldn’t you want to become BRAC UK?)

·       Inside-out: Several nationals, inspired by an international movement, directly create a new entity under the brand name and as part of an international alliance. The emergence of national MSF associations in various Western countries would be an example.  And we can easily imagine for example a number of Sierra Leonean medical personnel directly create an ‘MSF Sierra Leone’.

Certainly the second and third trajectory already signal some of the complexities: In both cases we have a ‘home-grown’ initiative that chose to become internationally affiliated, from the outset or after a while.

Then there is also the question of ‘time’ and its influence on perception:  Many INGOs have had programmes in a country for many years, even decades. World Vision has been programming in Peru and Plan International in Nepal since 1978.  Even if they are formally ‘international’, are they still locally perceived as ‘outsiders’? Does their legal status now make them more ‘foreign’, comparatively speaking, than e.g. SCF Jordan which emerged out of the INGO country office only in 2012? Or take Caritas Bangladesh, which was founded as the eastern branch of Caritas Bangladesh already in 1967. Is it ‘national’ enough or not?

Perceptions of ‘foreignness’ are subjective. They can last long: In the late 90s José Bové led vigorous protests against McDonalds in France. It is now well established in France and popular among French nationals. But probably not many would call it a ‘French’ company. And it is still a competitor for eateries and restaurant chains whose ‘national identity’ cannot be contested.

7    Localisation and Bio-Diversity.

There is a third possible interpretation of ‘localisation’. References are creeping into the discourse about the ‘eco-system’ of international humanitarian action. ‘Localisation’ then can also be seen as a strong plea for greater ‘bio-diversity’ within that system.

At the moment the funding and power are too concentrated in too few agency hands. More direct funding to nationally registered and staffed offices of international NGOs or to ‘affiliated national NGO’s might be strengthening capacities and leadership ‘in country’. But it doesn’t necessarily protect, and in its own way can undermine, national/local ‘bio-diversity’.

In the natural world, the loss of bio-diversity is seen as detrimental to our global wellbeing. In the globalising political economy of the human species, we can see greater competition sometimes be the catalyst for innovation. But many problems result from the speed with which changes in the eco-system happen, with extinction the result of not enough time to adapt. If we adhere to this vision, then ‘localisation’ includes the active promotion of a diversity of ‘home-grown’ national and local organisations, with more direct funding consciously directed towards them.

8.    Political Equivalents.

In political terms, these three possible interpretations equate with ‘decentralisation’, ‘federalism’ and not so much ‘conservationism’ as ‘deep democracy’.

Decentralisation and federalism work reasonably well in political systems which have evolved those architectures over a long period, almost all in Western countries. The track record of decentralisation and federalism in countries with different historical trajectories, such as in Africa, show however that very often the centre remains very powerful: local authorities (with constitutionally protected autonomy in a federal architecture or not) are often not economically and politically strong enough and do not have the administrative capacities, to counterbalance the power of the centre. They also remain weak because of a failure to cooperate or because they are played off against each other in a ‘divide and rule’ game. After the African wave of decentralisation and federalism of the 1990’s there has been a lot of ‘re-centralisation’.

‘Localisation’ of global humanitarian action, along the lines of decentralisation or federalism, can still lead to an outcome with a strong controlling centre. And there are powerful arguments for such, such as superior technical capacities and efficiencies from economies of scale.

‘Localisation’ as ‘bio-diversity’ should not be a radical ‘anti-globalisation’ movement: Syrians, Nepalis after the earthquake, and Sierra Leoneans faced with Ebola, needed global assistance. But this perspective understands the deeper political economy in the current humanitarian world order. It asks pertinent questions about why, after decades of programming and presence, there are perhaps many lives saved but often few local and national capacities sustainably built? (See my earlier blog, further below, on some alternatives to the 'capacity' question)  This perspective wants to reduce the risk of operational, financial & psychological ‘dependency’, when local initiatives, capacities and creativity are, repeatedly, rolled over. It raises the question of the longer-term purpose of international cooperation, including in crisis response.

Different interpretations of ‘localisation’, different visions, different political outcomes. Let the debate begin.


LOCALISATION: Meanings & Trajectories

The ‘humanitarian system’ wants to change, and change big time. Though having provided much needed practical assistance to millions of people over the past half century, there is a sense that it is no longer entirely ‘fit for purpose’.  ‘Localisation’ has come out of the World Humanitarian Summit process, as one of the important pillars of that change.

As local as possible, as international as necessary” has become the strap line that signals the broad goal and meaning of ‘localisation’: The default mode for crisis response shouldbecome one that relies on national and local capacities (‘nationally owned’ and ‘nationally led’), only supplemented by international action if and for as long as needed.

What, however, does this mean in practice? In this and subsequent blogs, I share some reflections about the implications of ‘localisation’, and some of the challenges that we are likely to encounter.

1.     Key Dimensions of Localisation.

Going through the rapidly growing literature of reports, blogs and stated commitments that relate to ‘localisation’, we see four major areas of change emerging:

·       Visibility: Greater recognition and visibility for the efforts, roles, innovations and achievements of local actors;

·       Capacities: More effective support for stronger local and national capacities & less undermining of those capacities e.g. by hiring away the more qualified local staff;

·       Funding: More direct and better quality funding to local actors: The commitment at the World Humanitarian Summit is to increase direct funding to local actors from less than 1 % today to 25% by 2020. Local actors also demand better quality funding, longer term, more flexible, and covering core costs;

·       Partnerships: Better, more genuine, ‘partnerships’ and less sub-contracting relationships.

These different aspects of ‘localisation’ are related but not identical. The translation into practice of each will require different changes and can benefit from its own milestones. They may also happen at different speeds: If I am an INGO with 90% funding from institutional donors and 10% from my own fund raising, I may be able to better profile the local actors in my communications and fundraising materials, but not to provide them with better quality funding if my ‘back donors’ don’t enable it. Another agency may be able to provide more direct and better quality funding, but may not be well qualified to offer significant support for overall organisational development.

One of the really interesting questions is whether there can be ‘partnership’ without money transfers? If the answer is ‘no’, then the transactional nature of the relationship remains the corner stone. If the answer is ‘yes’, then we can think better about what other ‘added value’ a national actor can see in an international partner.

2.    Why Localisation and Why Now?

Listening to the conversations, two justifications are often invoked: ‘first responders’ and ‘comparative advantage’.

First responders’: The argument runs that we should invest in stronger local capacities because the ‘first responders’ to a crisis will invariably be ‘local’ (to the level of family members and neighbours), and because local/national actors will stay whereas international responders at some point will leave.  While correct, this argument is also a bit puzzling. As we have seen with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the massive influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries, the 2015 Nepal earthquake etc., sudden onset ‘disasters’ can be of such scale that they overwhelm the local and national capacities to respond. That is when international support becomes justified and sometimes absolutely necessary. Let’s remember that the WHO was severely criticised for not responding quickly and robustly enough to the Ebola outbreak.

Comparative advantage’: Local actors understand much better the context, the cultural sensibilities, speak the local language(s), are better able to navigate the local environment.  A valid observation, which is precisely why the international agencies that establish their own presence, quickly start hiring the most qualified ‘national’ staff. Not an argument then, it seems, that would compel radical change. Moreover, while local actors better understand the context, they can also be part of the context: something that becomes particularly delicate in times of conflict, when the international agencies are very concerned about ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’.

Both justifications do not seem to explain why ‘localisation’ is suddenly the ‘next big thing’. The comparative advantages of local actors, and their being the ‘first’ (and longest-lasting) responders are nothing new. This has been the case for the past half century. So why ‘localisation’ now?

Are there not deeper reasons why the ‘international humanitarian system’ (that some would simply call the ‘relief industry') should change? Such as

  • The system is overstretched: It is no longer able to finance and respond operationally to the explosion of needs around the globe. So we need many more national and local actors to step up. That would be a very legitimate and understandable reason: but it also changes the ‘tone’ or ‘colour’ of the conversation: Now the ‘international system’ is not saying: “hey, sorry that we didn’t acknowledge this earlier, but we have now (yes we know it has taken us an eternity) come to acknowledge and appreciate your roles and capacities, and want to get better at supporting you”. It is actually saying: “hey, we are overstretched and can’t handle the global burden of humanitarian needs anymore, we need your additional capacity and have to ask you to share more of that burden, please.” From a local actor perspective, the difference in message is important and will influence how I respond to it. After all, as a local actor I am well aware that the term ‘localisation’ is a bit like ‘empowerment’: It makes you wonder what happened in the first place, to make that someone has no power, or that the action is not ‘locally-led’?
  • The system is unhealthy: it is overly centralised and bureaucratic, it encourages competition rather than collaboration, its ‘technification’ and ‘professionalisation’ are taking the humanity out of it: affected populations are no more than ‘big data’.
  • The (underfinanced) system is wasteful: There are too many ‘fundingmediaries’. More fundamentally, by not effectively strengthening local capacities, it has to mobilise time and again at great cost, in response to the next crisis. The international agencies, rather than complementing the national efforts, come in with a too heavy footprint, tend to take over, in different ways undermine local capacities, and continue doing so for too long. Hurricane Matthew’s impact in Haiti, a few days ago, will be an interesting case: international capacities are needed to bring in enough food and other supplies quickly. But after many years of repeat waves of international presence, has more Haitian capacity been built?

All of this is not cost-effective: If there are major disasters in e.g. North America, Europe, China or Japan, there simply is not a ‘second tsunami’ of international agencies: overall the national capacities are enough to deal with the situation. Why don’t we simply say that ‘localisation’ is the investment, globally, in national capacities to manage crisis situations effectively. Just as all societies need to have the capacities to meet their own water or energy needs. Isn’t that a more strategically convincing argument than the reference to ‘first responders’? Unless of course we mostly want to see more ‘burden sharing’ i.e. the dominant players in the ‘international system’ are really looking for more ‘no-entry’ and ‘quicker exit’-strategies because they no longer have the will and ability to stay on?

3.      Which Local Actors & Who is ‘Local’?

While the ‘Grand Bargain’ document from the World Humanitarian Summit does not specify the nature of the ‘local actors’, conversations in INGO circles tend to focus on local ‘civil society’ ones. So what is the place in this for local and national authorities? After all, when we have a major disaster in aid-providing countries, flooding in Germany, a hurricane hitting the eastern board of the US, an earthquake in Italy, a refugee influx in Belgium, it is governmental institutions that lead the response. Major support roles tend to be played by the Civil Defence and national Red Cross or Red Crescent society, further complemented by NGOs and other voluntary associations.

In a conflict situation humanitarian actors may be more cautious about strengthening governmental capacities, as its neutrality and impartiality may be compromised. But much disaster risk reduction actively involves governmental institutions. And with increasing urbanisation, city authorities often play a major role.

There is also the thorny issue of who is ‘local’? Two of the tension-points here are diaspora-led organisations and national franchises of international NGO alliances. Diasporas are important not only for their remittances. Several diaspora members have set up their own operational organisations. Their familiarity with the mind-sets and ways of working of the 'internationals' may give them a competitive advantage over 'national' actors. While they sometimes claim to speak for their own society, non-diaspora local actors do not necessarily agree and see them as just another intermediary. The situation is also muddled by international civil society alliances and confederations creating more and more national franchises, sometimes approaching a national CSO to change its identity and become part of the international brand. Does enhanced work with them count as ‘localisation’? For the moment, other national and local organisations don’t agree: they see them as internationals-in-disguise, competing with them for limited funding.

4.   Different Trajectories.

Progress on ‘localisation’ is not going to be similar, and comparable, across the board. We can see different scenarios which will lead to different trajectories and speeds. Some key factors influencing the translation into practice are likely to be:

  •  The type of international organisation:  Developing meaningful partnerships with local actors, will come more naturally to international agencies that have a strong foundation in ‘solidarity’, and whose default mode is working with partners. The current signatories to Charter4Change are not a representative sample of the international relief actors. International agencies whose reflex is to be 'operational’, and whose business model is largely dependent on this, will find that real partnerships go ‘against their grain’.  UN agencies talk easily about partnership, but have sometimes a mandate and sometimes an unnecessary tendency to be and remain centre stage.
  • Governmental and non-governmental partners: Working with national and local public authorities is different from working with national civil society actors – or national/local private sector actors. Governmental entities can more easily assert an ‘authority’, but strengthening their institutional capacity may be harder than that of non-governmental actors.
  •  Prior History in the Context: You would expect the ‘localisation’ of relief to be easier and more advanced in places with repeat (or chronic) crises such as the Philippines, Bangladesh or the eastern DRC. Localising a major relief effort may be more demanding in response to a rapid onset (as different from a slow onset) disaster. Or where the prior collaboration was largely around development and/or conflict transformation; take Nepal prior to the 2015 earthquake or West Africa prior to the Ebola outbreak as examples. It will be more difficult where there was hardly any history of prior collaboration, such as in Syria. 
  • The various strands of ‘localisation’: As mentioned, progress in the different areas: visibility for the local actors; better capacity-support; more equal partnerships; and more direct and better quality funding, will require different actions and may happen at different speeds.  For each of these we can ask: What needs to be stopped? What can continue but needs to be changed? What do we need to do more of? What do we need to do that we haven’t done before?

These different trajectories will make it difficult to assess whether, across the ‘system’, there is meaningful progress in the next five years. It may also provide many opportunities to drag the feet and find reasons why change is happening only at a snail pace. We will have to develop refined ways of reviewing progress, and assessing whether constraints invoked are legitimate or overstated?

5     Who Determines the Balance?

As local as possible, as international as necessary” is both a powerful and a deceptive catch phrase. Because who determines whether the right balance was achieved, and whether that balance evolved appropriately, as the situation evolved? My observation, over 25+ years of work, is that the international agencies’ strong footprint may be warranted at particular moments in time, but often continuous for far too long. Sometimes national governments make the point when they start restricting the number of work-permits for expatriates, telling the international agencies that by now they should have trained enough nationals to be in charge. How do we assess this more pro-actively, with enough nuance and without excessive subjectivity?

6    Beyond the ‘Humanitarian’ Sector?

Finally, there is no reason why ‘localisation’ should be limited to the humanitarian sector or the relief world. Support for national capacities and encouragement of national ‘ownership’ are also part of development cooperation, conflict reduction and peace work, trade negotiations, research etc. Already twenty years ago, an ODI colleague was embedded as an adviser in the delegation from an African country to rounds of technically complex and tricky international trade negotiations. I would be surprised if they don't fully handle these now on their own. All of my involvement with conflict reduction and peace work has been with ‘local capacities’, for the simple reason that it is inevitable:  outsiders can help create some enabling conditions but only the people of societies in conflict can make durable peace with each other. We now have African and Asian-Pacific Evaluation Associations, and need to work more with and, if needed, further support national and regional capacities to conduct policy- and practice-relevant research.

For some 50 years international development cooperation has been shaped by Western actors because they were the main providers of ‘aid money’. Perhaps ‘localisation’ signals, and will accelerate, a more international ‘international’ system?  That is partially frightening, because a whole industry has been built on this in Western countries. But it may be inevitable - and will also open up powerful new perspectives and alignments.  



LOCALISATION: "As local as possible, as international as necessary". alternative approaches to capacity-development.

1. Substituting rather than Supporting Local Capacities.

One of the alleged reasons why international relief agencies in most crises continue to ‘take over’ from local governmental and non-governmental actors, is the alleged ‘lack of capacity’ by the latter. That observation can be partially correct: Local agencies that can drive, coordinate and delivery assistance are themselves often affected by major natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, or the wars in Yemen and Syria. Overwhelmed local capacities justify international support. The problem occurs when the latter actually further undermines local capacities by hiring away all the best local people to boost their own, and by taking over the decision making. And when this situation persists not just for months but often for years. ‘Support’ for local capacities has become ‘substitution’. Is there really no other way? Here some ideas, underpinned by practical experiences, for different ways of operating.

2. Unpacking ‘Capacities’.

Generalised conversations about ‘capacities’ lead nowhere. Let us consider what are some of the major and frequent ‘capacity challenges’ that relief providers in time of crisis face:

Meeting donor requirements: The administrative requirements of bilateral and multilateral donors are notoriously complex, and in recent years have only become more demanding. Irrespective of how good you actually are ‘on the ground’, if you can’t write the proposals, budgets and track records according to the required formats and standards, you will not even be considered for funding. Writing skills are almost more decisive than your actual capacity to ‘do things’. Later you need to be able to meet the often diverse reporting requirements and be able to handle sophisticated evaluations.

Technical-thematic expertise: If you want to register people in need or run nutritional, immunisation or water and sanitation programmes, you need the technical expertise. If you want to protect women from gender based violence, or the rights of children not to suffer the consequences of armed conflict, you need some thematic expertise but also much socio-political skill.

Scaling up – and scaling down: Often large populations are affected, and larger relief operations are needed. Scaling up rapidly – increasing budgets and staff but also the management oversight over bigger operations- poses significant organizational challenges. Sometime in future, the situation will have stabilised and needs are less acute, or funding levels decline, and you will be faced with the reverse organizational challenge of perhaps equally rapidly scaling down.

Understanding and navigating the specific environment: All environments have complex social, cultural, political and economic dynamics that are affected by the crisis and by the crisis response. We need to learn how the local populations see ‘the world’, assess the intended and unintended impacts of the presence and provision of assistance in that situation, and avoid attempts to benefit from it in ways that we do not find acceptable. We also need to build or maintain a broad network of collaborative relations as most challenges are too big and complex to be handled by one agency alone.

Operating with conflict-sensitivity: Providing assistance in troubled environments comes with the responsibility at least not to put oil on the fire of existing tensions and conflicts, nor to create new ones. This cannot happen without the in-depth understanding of the ‘context’ mentioned and a close monitoring of intended and unintended impacts of your presence and actions.

Many international relief agencies have strong competencies in the first two capacity challenges: meeting donor requirements and technical-thematic expertise. Some have the organizational experience with rapidly scaling up and down, though many others will also struggle. More often than not, they are not strong at understanding and navigating the specific context with conflict-sensitivity. Does such 'competencies picture' justify the substitution of local capacities? We don't think so.

3. Alternatives to Substitution.

Suppose the international relief industry operated very differently, and would always make ‘supporting local capacities’ a strategic objective next to saving lives and protecting basic rights. Here are three possible components of what such scenario might look like:

a. Seconding very qualified staff: Rather than hiring away the best local people, international agencies second highly qualified staff to local organisations to boost their capacities where they are most challenged. They essentially have an advisory support role, on technical, thematic and managerial issues, but can lead on donor required paperwork if it includes also training and mentoring local staff. This is not as easy as it sounds: To bring real value, such seconded international staff needs to be very experienced, but also have necessary ‘soft skills’: strong interpersonal and cross-cultural skills, the ability to make the shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’, being a mentor more than a trainer, knowing how to deal constructively with perceived resistance etc. This is not different from the ‘technical assistance’ that is often provided to national governments. It also requires the local organisation to be willing to learn and develop, and make the most of this opportunity. And to accept the inevitable salary differentials, as long as the seconded person provides real value-for-money and does so with the required sensitivity.

b. Systematic and extended training: Sometimes there simply will not be an existing local capacity or one with the potential to grow. Many years ago I joined the Afghanistan Vaccination and Immunisation Centre. It was set up by French doctors who, contrary to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in the few medical agencies then working in rural Afghanistan, believed that Afghans were capable of running something as technically complex as an immunization programme. From day one, they started a training center. Afghan doctors were further trained as trainers for this particular health operation. Afghans, recruited in Afghanistan and not the refugee camps, were trained as vaccinators and cold chain technicians. The best of those became supervisors, the best of those again became epidemiological surveyors etc. Others were trained on administration and finance etc. It was often too dangerous in various provinces for expatriates to monitor. But after prolonged working together, there was real trust in the Afghan supervisors and surveyors. In truth: I have never seen any other programme since, that so systematically invested in the development of local capacity from day one.

c. A two-way learning office: Early on in every major crisis, an ‘independent’ learning office is established with carefully selected national and international staff. It’s role is to make available and understandable relevant information (standards, learning, methodologies…) from international experience, but also to capture the important learning of what it means to operate in that particular environment. Which is critically important to the international actors, who always struggle to find the ‘best fit’ for a given situation.

4. Potential Benefits of Strategic Capacity-Support.

Some of the potential big benefits of such approach in which the international agencies do not overwhelmingly ‘go operational’ themselves would be:

a. No ‘second tsunami’: This is how local actors in some of the areas affected by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami described the overwhelming ‘wave’ of international relief agencies pouring in and taking over;

b. 'Remote' is not the problem: At the moment ‘remote management’ is seen as the last and least preferred option that is entered into when the environment is too dangerous for ‘foreigners’ to go into. Such perspective reveals how prevailing ‘direct presence’ is as the default mode of operation. At the very heart of this issue is the question of ‘trust’. Are it only ‘internationals’ that can operate to the ‘required standards’, is only the direct monitoring and supervision by a ‘foreigner’ sufficiently trustworthy? Are we so unable or unwilling to identify trustworthy people among local populations? Do we really believe that all ‘foreigners’ are highly skilled, objective and trust worthy? Would the ‘foreigner’ in this crisis suddenly become less ‘trust worthy’ if s/he were acting in a crisis in her or his home environment? And does the person who is ‘local’ in her or his environment suddenly become more ‘trustworthy’ when s/he goes to work with an aid agency as an ‘expatriate’ elsewhere? What if we changed our mind set and saw the opportunities in 'remote support'?

These three suggestions may seem fanciful ideas. They are indeed not ‘mainstream’ though they have been tried and tested on a smaller scale by more creative agencies in many places. How they would work out on a larger scale, we will not know until we try. But are we willing to change our habitual ways of doing and relinquish our center-stage positions?