A More Dignified and Equitable Humanitarian System

How To Truly Localize Aid

Year-on-year, the world is experiencing disasters with increasing frequency, as well as a growing number of conflicts due to climate change, rapid urbanization, poverty, and environmental degradation, to name a few. More often than not, the international humanitarian system is asked to respond to these disasters and conflicts through the provision of life-saving aid, whenever and wherever it is needed. At the center of this system are the millions of people affected by crises that the system seeks to serve.

However, a growing disconnect between the needs of disaster-affected communities and the actions of those who define the terms of the humanitarian system is compromising the effectiveness of that system. Currently, global humanitarian policies take little account of the dependency of disaster affected populations on local actors, including local government, civil society, and Southern Non-Government Organizations (SNGOs), who are usually the first on the ground in the wake of humanitarian crises. These entities as well as local businesses and the national private sector play a vital role in responding to emergencies and post-crises rehabilitation.

The current humanitarian architecture invests very little in the sustainable capacity building of local actors, a factor which is driving an escalating culture of dependency on international NGOs (INGOs) and other international agencies. These actors in turn often sideline local actors, treating SNGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) as sub-contractors rather than partners. This capacity shortfall limits the effectiveness of first-respondents in the immediate wake of disasters, reconstruction or recovery efforts and isolates them from policy and planning dialogue in which critical decisions that affect them as well as affected communities are taken. In some countries, tensions also arise between the national government and the international humanitarian system, especially when the international humanitarian system works in isolation of the government.

There is now a growing consensus that the humanitarian response needs to be more locally rooted. “One that leverages the responsibilities and capacities of states, civil society and affected communities, supported by international actors, is one which will be more effective in responding to and mitigating the risks of crises.” In addition, the focus on resilience requires greater engagement with local and national institutions because of its core emphasis on strengthening local systems in advance of future shocks.

This article proposes four principal reforms that will promote a more effective partnership between local actors and the international humanitarian system led by the UN and INGOs. These reforms will encourage greater equity in decision making, as well as more open and transparent communication, in addition to supporting more ethical and transparent expenditure and the capacity building of local actors. The proposed reforms are:

1. Reform the global humanitarian architecture to ensure increased participation of local actors and involvement of all stakeholders, concerning the policies and terms of humanitarian response, recovery and resilience efforts to be undertaken in partnership with local authorities, national governments and local civil society.

2. Reform aid financing to enable local actors (SNGOs, local governments, and civil society organizations) to access the funding they require to better anticipate and respond effectively to crises. Improved ownership in the medium to longer-term, which grows out of that increased effectiveness, will also be assured. Such a reform will also bring greater transparency to the management and disbursement of donor funds — an issue of mounting concern to taxpayers. It will also foster a smoother transition from disaster relief in emergencies to recovery and resilience building.

3. INGOs should consider the following recommendations as part of operationalizing a People-centered humanitarian response and the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. INGOs should be working in solidarity with SNGOs to
support the establishment of a new aid architecture that truly practices the ethos espoused in various international commitments. This role should include advocacy by INGOs to their respective donor countries and the UN system to truly change the humanitarian architecture in a meaningful way.

4. These recommendations, along with existing commitments in support of a People-centered humanitarian response should be incorporated in organizational accountability frameworks and should be a mandatory part of reporting requirements.

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