By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Islamic State fighters tried to enter a centre helping displaced Syrians in Lebanon's border town of Ersal in 2014, local people kept the militants out, telling them that Amel Association International, the Lebanese aid group running it, was independent and its staff should not be targeted.
The centre has been able to continue offering services including healthcare, education and job training to more than 2,000 Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees at a time in the troubled town, after clashes made it too dangerous for most international humanitarian agencies to work there.
Virginie Lefèvre, Amel's programme and partnerships coordinator, said the situation in Ersal shows how national organisations with independent local employees are well placed to navigate complex, sectarian conflicts.
"The total lesson learned of this Syrian crisis is that localisation is working and that it is more efficient," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Beirut.
"Localisation" is a buzz word in the aid industry that means devolving funding and power to national and local humanitarian groups, often seen as more nimble and effective than global agencies, especially in perilous places like Syria.
International organisations have been accused of parachuting into crisis zones without forethought, pushing up prices and charging high overheads while the shortage of cash for life-saving work grows more severe.
As the United Nations gears up for May's World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, its chief, Ban Ki-moon, has joined a push to level the playing field for developing-world aid groups - something they have long advocated.
In a report ahead of the conference, the first gathering of its kind, the U.N. secretary-general noted "remarkable improvements" at national and local levels in preparing for, and responding to emergencies in the past decade.
"The international community has an obligation to respect and further strengthen this capacity and local leadership in crises and not to put in place parallel structures that may undermine it," he wrote.
National groups like Amel are pleased with Ban's call for the bigger players to support their efforts - but they worry that pledges made at the humanitarian summit may be too vague.
Lefèvre said a set of commitments proposed by Ban does not include enough clear indicators and benchmarks, and this could make it hard to measure whether promises are kept.
"We are afraid that donors and states will say yes to all those recommendations, because there is no need to track what is going to happen," she said.
Amel and many other aid groups based in developing countries want the summit to agree what proportion of global humanitarian funding should go to national and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a target date for this to be done.
Their share of the total funding pie halved to 0.2 percent in 2014 from 0.4 percent in 2012, according to an annual report from the Global Humanitarian Assistance programme, and their share of the money received by all NGOs also fell, to 1.2 percent.
Under a separate "Charter for Change", 18 international charities so far, including Christian Aid and Islamic Relief Worldwide, have agreed to put into practice by May 2018 eight commitments to boost the role of national agencies. They include passing 20 percent of humanitarian funding down to that level.
Major government donors, including Britain, have shown interest in expanding the work done by local NGOs, but regulations and anti-terror laws often restrict who they can fund.
The European Commission (EC), for example, requires agencies through which it channels aid to be registered in Europe, and to have their headquarters there or in a country that receives aid from the Commission.
Alexandre Polack, EC spokesman for humanitarian aid and crisis management, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the issue of aid localisation should be "at the forefront" of the Istanbul summit.
"Humanitarian response should be as local as possible," he said. "But we also need to make sure the necessary capacity and accountability are there."
FREE FROM BIAS?
That isn't always the case, aid experts say. Gareth Owen, humanitarian director of Save the Children UK, recalled how, working for Oxfam after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, he had to cancel partnerships with local groups that were politically active or dedicated to helping specific marginalised communities.
That is because humanitarian principles stipulate that aid must be given on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.
"Occasionally we have to be quite dirigiste about it," said Owen. "We want to be as national as possible but as international as necessary."
In highly insecure situations like Syria, where some four fifths of aid is being provided on the ground through local groups, ensuring neutrality and adherence to other humanitarian principles is a major challenge for donors.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former U.N. aid chief, said letting national groups run the show was more straightforward in natural disasters.
Why fly rescue dogs all the way from Norway to Nepal to search for survivors after an earthquake, for example? "It's idiotic," he said. "We have to do better local work."
But he does not agree with those who may argue at the Istanbul summit that national governments and local organisations should be given the bulk of funding to help those hit by civil war in their own countries.
"They are too often biased, or they are persecuted and they are part of the conflict, and the whole point of principled humanitarian action is that it is important to be able to come from outside and give impartial, neutral support," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The risk of corruption is another deterrent to channelling international aid through local NGOs and businesses - a concern that affected funding after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Less than 1 percent of the $1.3 billion overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development for the post-quake recovery effort has gone directly to Haitian groups, according to the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
One way for local groups to obtain money from nervous donors is via U.N. agencies or international charities that pass on funding for activities in the field.
But Lefèvre said that chain is "not cost-effective", and can end up with the national NGO taking all the risk without getting the financial and technical means to do its work properly.
Amel, which runs 24 centres and six mobile medical units across Lebanon, is funded by a variety of donors and international NGOs, but is struggling to keep its activities going smoothly, despite growing needs due to the Syrian war.
As crises around the globe compete for the same pot of cash, partners often ask Amel to serve the same number of people for less money, Lefèvre said.
But that can lower the quality of vocational training for youths, for example, or make Amel take a mobile clinic out of service for a few weeks and refer patients elsewhere, she added.
"It is a daily fight to get money," she said. "We are clearly not getting enough, and we're thinking about those admin costs that are going to some international NGOs - and which are huge."
(Reporting by Megan Rowling in Barcelona; additional reporting by Tom Esslemont in London and Anastasia Moloney in Bogota, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)