Power, Privilege & the Realities of NGO Localization Efforts Amid COVID-19

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Power, Privilege & the Realities of NGO Localization Efforts Amid COVID-19

Localization is a fashionable topic in the humanitarian community. The COVID-19 pandemic—where containment measures continue to disrupt humanitarian access—has ignited a new urgency to address the subject.

A focal point of this conversation on localization originates with the creation and commitment to the Grand Bargain, which aims to increase efficiency in aid delivery, in part by collaborating with and including more local responders in humanitarian action. Nevertheless, action to initiate localization efforts has been lackluster in many instances. While a lack of accountability mechanisms contributes to this lethargic shift, the top-down humanitarian structure that has existed since its inception has become a foundational barrier to change.

In a sector grounded in principles to protect people’s rights and well-being, these ideals hide the fact that affected populations—who are simultaneously the first responders in crisis—are often without the fundamental right or power to guide their own futures. The sector must take tangible steps to incorporate and empower local stakeholders and communities.

What are we really talking about?

The shift toward localization is marred by terminology widely used in the humanitarian vernacular but poorly defined in practice. Locally-led, capacity building, self-reliance, decentralization, participatory approaches, etc., are not synonymous; however, they are often part of the lexicon representing “localization” efforts and partnerships, without a standard meaning across the sector.

In fact, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of localization itself.

Notably, the word power is often left out of discussions or reviews of partnerships between humanitarian organizations of varying sizes and local stakeholders. However, it is omnipresent. In the humanitarian field, power is represented in many aspects of response: in decision making, resource distribution, knowledge sharing, and access to information.

However, there are understated ways power dynamics are displayed as well. Choice of working language, hours of operations, which cultural norms are to be followed, what knowledge is deemed most relevant, and who is an expert are all examples of decision-making powers that are generally held and represented by global north stakeholders. Modeling humanitarian organizations to fit Western norms and institutionalizing Western practices undermines local knowledge, engagement, and leadership, often leaving local actors feeling incapable or powerless to take action for their own benefit.

Shifting From Intention To Practice

Even as the humanitarian and development sectors look to decolonize aid and encourage localization, the power structures in current trainings and tools aimed at this transfer of responsibility should also be scrutinized. INGOs must stop replicating the short-term mindset of humanitarian aid and invest in consistent and ongoing relationship building with local organizations. For instance, in a Syrian case study, having a dedicated partnership person within an INGO was deemed the most effective way of building local capacity. This dedicated point of contact supported the local NGO in navigating the complex international terrain of funding and donor requirements.

Local NGOs have reported that they welcome the organizational guidance and mentorship of INGO staff. However, empowering support must revolve around the needs and existing capacities of local organizations. That support should allow local NGOs to actively engage by leading responses and, in turn, build confidence and mutual respect across the partnership. This type of relationship can develop what Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro of CARE International calls “inclusive power,” where local NGOs are not just contracted to execute an existing plan of action but hold decision-making roles equitable to their expatriate colleagues. Whatsmore, a more horizontal relationship can create an environment where national and local organizations can showcase their context-specific knowledge and educate their INGOs partners in best practices.

The Time is Now

As humanitarian Strategist Peter Walker said, “locally-led can be innovative.” One of the few bright outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the opportunity for local and national organizations to lead the crisis response in locally relevant ways. While not a planned shift, it does exemplify the resiliency of local actors and their capacity to deliver appropriate aid. If the humanitarian sector is truly serious about localization and shifting power to locally-led responses, it should use the pandemic as a catalyst to review policies and take action on their commitments to support and share power with local actors and national staff.

InterAction is beginning to capture local perspectives on crisis response. Initially focusing on shelter and settlements assistance, we are speaking with organizations, individuals, local government bodies, and academic institutions on both successes and challenges in this area. These conversations will support and guide an upcoming initiative centered around better understanding and leveraging local leadership in crisis response.

To delve deeper into the successes, hurdles, and projects around localization, here is some further reading:

Please reach out to shelter@interaction.org if you would like to contribute or have relevant resources.

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