A Good Idea Buried Beneath Foreign Policy Chaos: Localization of Humanitarian Aid

It would have been easy to miss the beginning of the year announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green in which he emphasized the agency’s focus on “transitioning” recipient aid countries to “journeys of self-reliance.”

Between dramatic changes in leadership at the White House, State Department, and CIA — plus crises simmering with China, North Korea, and Iran — it has been difficult to sort through the foreign policy noise coming out of Washington.

Behind this chaos, USAID Administrator Green has been steadfastly working on a suite of policy reforms to localize foreign aid in order to make the journey to self-reliance possible. Green’s basic principle is to help countries get to a point ultimately where they no longer need assistance and for development professionals to work themselves out of a job. If done correctly, these policy reforms could build on promising reform started under his predecessors.

While this should be the ideal, what I’ve seen working for the U.S. government and now at Oxfam America is that self-reliance won’t work until local actors — including national and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society, and capable national and local governments — have more power, resources, decision-making authority, and strong operational capacities to lead development and humanitarian responses on the ground. And that will take time.

Let’s consider how we traditionally respond to humanitarian disasters, using a good example in which the aid paradigm is too skewed in favor of international actors. When disaster hits a country or region, a United Nations-led network representing countries, donors, and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) often organizes the call to action and initial response. The international role can be critical in raising awareness of the crisis and necessary funds to address urgent humanitarian needs; it has also saved thousands of lives and provided vital services such as health care, water, and protection to millions.

Too often, however, this approach sidelines local actors who are on the frontlines when disasters strike and play the key role in leading and delivering humanitarian preparedness, response, and risk reduction programs. Ironically, this top-down paradigm results in exacerbating an overstretched system where assistance is often insufficient, late, and inappropriate for the local context. It also creates an inherent power imbalance that reinforces unequal relationships and can even cause harm to local populations — the exact opposite of the most important humanitarian principle of “do no harm.”

There is a better way to help those in crisis, and any journey to self-reliance should reflect on what we have learned already. For example, ahead of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, local actors spoke out about the failure of putting local responders at the center of crisis response and the powerlessness felt by local aid workers trying to function in the international system. In responding to the conflict in South Sudan, earthquakes in Nepal, and typhoons in the Philippines, we saw the value of shifting power, resources, and responsibility whenever possible from international to local actors. It’s smart policy: strengthening the capacity of local actors to respond to crises and leaving them the space to lead. Yet, we have a long way to go to achieve this transformation. In 2016, only 2 percent of all humanitarian assistance globally was given directly to local actors in countries responding to crises, and less than 0.3 percent given directly to local civil society.

Despite this paltry amount, we have powerful examples of how local humanitarian leadership can save lives and costs. Take the case of El Salvador, where USAID and other international actors spent years training members of the civil protection commission. Today, a Salvadoran government body has taken over a key emergency coordination role of the UN, and an influential network of Salvadoran NGOs dedicated to reducing risks and upholding the rights of vulnerable communities is now receiving direct funding from major donors like the Gates Foundation. This is showing dramatic results. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck El Salvador leaving 84,000 homeless and destroyed about 25 percent of the country’s agricultural productivity and 1200 miles of road. In the 20 years since, El Salvador has greatly increased it capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from these emergencies. When Tropical Depression 12E in 2011 dumped twice as much precipitation on El Salvador as Hurricane Mitch, the damage was far less with 35 deaths and 328 homes destroyed.

Such progress, unfortunately, doesn’t happen overnight. INGOs like Oxfam have been working for more than a decade to strengthen Salvadoran response capacity. In the beginning, this meant offering hands-on technical training and direct coordination. Over time, international actors stepped back from the frontlines and into roles of funders, advisors, capacity strengtheners, and advocates for strong coordination and promotion of their partners’ advocacy agenda. If USAID wants countries to transition to self-reliance, then it must continue to transition its policy reforms along this line.

Other parts of the U.S. government have already moved in this direction. Agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, where I recently worked, have made country ownership the basis of the model for providing development assistance. This requires a genuine partnership between governments and civil society, as well as transfers of responsibility for providing public goods and services to the country partner, instead of the United States. It also increases the likelihood that development aid is sustainable and actually useful to the poor in improving their lives and livelihoods.

With Administrator Green pushing for reforms, we have an opportunity to fundamentally transform the face of international humanitarian assistance, particularly by investing in local leadership. This is an unlikely bright spot amid the erratic foreign policy we watch unfolding every day from Washington. Let’s seize the moment.

Fatema Z. Sumar is Vice President for Global Programs at Oxfam America and a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.

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