Moving Toward a Locally-Led Humanitarian Response

Photo By: Abhishek Purohit Raahgir is licensed under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Moving Toward a Locally-Led Humanitarian Response

Localization isn’t a new concept for the global humanitarian community.

After many years of debate and conversation, dozens of humanitarian organizations signed the voluntary and non-binding Grand Bargain, representing a commitment to increase aid efficiency by working with more local organizations in humanitarian responses.

Despite this commitment, concerns over national NGO capacity, the challenge of upholding humanitarian principles in certain contexts, the administrative burden of directly funding small grants, fiduciary risks, language barriers, and the inaccessibility of the humanitarian structure have limited progress toward implementing this commitment in practice. The need for locally-led response grows increasingly urgent as the humanitarian community struggles to address rising humanitarian needs with limited funding and resources.

To better understand the issue of locally-led response directly from local and national actors themselves, InterAction’s Shelter & Settlements team engaged in over 20 conversations with local and national actors who highlighted challenges to local leadership and opportunities to support more sustainable local leadership in humanitarian responses.

One such challenge is that “localization” has no agreed-upon definition, ranging from creating sustainable partnerships, to directly funding local and national NGOs, to international NGOs withdrawing from humanitarian response altogether. Debate also surrounds who should be considered a “local actor.” Does the term include only local- and community-level civil society organizations? Does it extend to national organizations, local private sector organizations, and diaspora groups? What about internationally affiliated locally-based organizations, or local offices of INGOs predominantly made up of local staff?

Another reported obstacle to local leadership is national staff capacities, or a perceived lack thereof. However, conversations with national staff highlighted their unique ability to know what communities feel and think and to understand the context in which they are working. The staff consulted believe that technical and professional capacity can be found in local markets, but other factors prevent local actors from leading humanitarian responses.

Local and national staff also acknowledged areas where local actors and organizations could use additional support including recruitment processes, personal security, best practices in response, capacity building of local authorities, and accountability mechanisms.

  • A local staff member working in Pakistan noted that the absence of a governmental policy framework around the roles and responsibilities of NGOs in service delivery and development has resulted in defective NGO administration.
  • A local staff member working in Nepal emphasized the need for long-term partnerships and funding. When funding runs out, local NGOs cannot provide promised support, and communities become concerned that the local NGOs’ interests are purely monetary, rather than the well-being of the community.
  • Many of those consulted highlighted the disparity between pay for international and local staff. A local staff member working in Haiti mentioned that expatriate staff are often provided fringe benefits, such as security compensation, while local staff working on the front lines are not.
  • Local organizations also identified the need for capacity building in accountability mechanisms, specifically monitoring and reporting.

While the challenges to sustained local leadership in humanitarian response are well researched, solutions are not. Many of the local actors consulted provided ideas for how to support national staff in leading humanitarian responses:

  • An academic based in France emphasized long-lasting and sustainable capacity building and suggested practical learning tools to provide field experience in a humanitarian response setting. Similarly, a professor from Brazil highlighted a university program that allows students to work within the participatory process of development to gain hands-on experience.
  • Many of those consulted emphasized partnerships as a solution, but currently, partnerships are often sub-contractor relationships rather than acting as equals, contributing to the decision-making process, and learning from one another. Local actors often feel they have no flexibility in implementing programs or adapting to evolving conditions on the ground.

With all of this in mind, InterAction’s Shelter and Settlements Team is conducting a national staff capacity assessment to highlight national staff capabilities and opportunities and to recommend how to support sustainable local leadership in humanitarian response. InterAction will focus on local leadership in humanitarian response, “a process of recognizing, respecting, and strengthening the leadership by local authorities and the capacity of local civil society in humanitarian action, in order to better address the needs of affected populations and to prepare national actors for future humanitarian responses.”

A lot more listening is needed to understand the current realities of locally-led humanitarian response and to find solutions that empower local leadership in humanitarian response. Initial consultations are ongoing and later consultations will bring in both global and national stakeholders to discuss possible solutions and a path forward.

If you would like to contribute to this project, please contact Juli King at

if ( function_exists('cn_cookies_accepted') && cn_cookies_accepted() ) { }