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Going local in aid will help build disaster resilience

by Charlotte Rye, ODI | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 27 May 2016 14:18 GMT

Khadieja Omer Mohamed, a 4th grader at Sudan Aid School at Dereige camp for the internally displaced poses for a photograph in Nyala in South Darfur, Sudan, Nov. 19, 2015. Born in the camp, 12-year-old Mohamed wishes to be a doctor in her adulthood. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The argument for a more local approach to aid came across loud and clear at the World Humanitarian Summit

This week, nearly 175 countries came together at the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) to reform how we do aid. Leading humanitarian, climate and development experts argued the need for a greater focus on local actors as a top priority. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities, networks and people, they said, are best placed to respond to disasters and to build their own resilience, rather than having it built for them.

Just 0.3% of all humanitarian aid goes directly to local NGOs. A lack of coordination and a trust vacuum are deemed the root of the issue, dissuading donor governments from investing directly in local organisations.

Instead, they tend to stick with what they know – passing three quarters of aid funding to large-scale international organisations, which over the decades have had their own administrative and financial systems built to a high professional standard.

But it wasn’t always like this, the argument goes, so why not support those on the frontline of disasters to manage risk in ways that are locally relevant? 

“A priority at the WHS is to bridge the humanitarian divides and make a policy commitment to localisation,” said Nigel Fisher, former president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, who chaired a WHS side event organised by the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, on the imperative for making aid more local. Participants heard that the entire humanitarian architecture needs to reform and partner with local actors, utilising their comparative advantage to build people’s capacity to deal with shocks and stresses.

Garry Conille, former prime minister of Haiti and now with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, brought firsthand experience of the chaos involved in responding to and preparing for disasters like the 2010 earthquake in his country.

It has made Haiti, he said, “not a fragile state but a fragilised state by those who are trying to help it”. Of the $6.43 billion spent following the earthquake, just 0.6 percent was given to Haitian NGOs.

Conille described the lack of coordination, trust and respect between international and national organisations as a “we don’t love you, and they don’t understand us” kind of relationship. 


The arguments for a more direct way of working are not complicated. Local actors work at the heart of their communities and can respond to disasters immediately. They are also there for good, long after international aid workers have left.

Takeshi Komino, secretary general of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), spoke of the shared interest for local NGOs working together on emergency relief. “There is a sense of solidarity, of being among us, not being an outsider. Local actors share the same values, the same local resources. There is an ‘if you ask, I’ll give you’ attitude,” he said. Local knowledge can also ensure plans and activities are set within the right context of culture, language, religion and history, he added.

In fragile or conflict contexts in particular, local actors play a vital role in saving lives, being based in areas that may be cut off to others. Kevin Watkins, director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), highlighted the disproportionately small amount of aid that goes to fragile states. They receive just 12 percent of multilateral climate finance, yet 58 percent of people killed by disasters live in the top 30 fragile states, a new ODI report notes.

A Somali NGO representative at the event highlighted the inefficiencies of the current system - in which his organisation gets money from international organisations, which get money from a U.N. agency, which gets money from a donor government. Five years ago, his organisation implemented a $5 million programme across three countries in the Horn of Africa, he said, but received only $10,000 for its efforts. “We are there, we can implement,” he emphasised. 

Helen Young of Tufts University, which is part of the BRACED consortium in Chad and Sudan, spoke of the huge potential of local networks. The Darfur Development and Reconstruction Agency, for example, has developed a network of community based organisations at the village level which operates a market monitoring and trade analysis system that publishes quarterly bulletins. This work is being utilised to help build an early warning system for drought in the region.


The Grand Bargain – a set of around 50 commitments made by some of the world’s largest donors and aid agencies to boost efficiency - was unveiled at the WHS in Istanbul. It addresses the gap in funding for local NGOs by committing to increase their share of the total aid pie to 25 percent by 2020. Some organisations intend to go even further, with Oxfam pledging to pass on at least 30 percent of its own humanitarian funding directly to local NGOs by May 2018, for example.

If the international community is to be more effective in responding to disasters and reducing the risk of them happening in the first place, it must bring on board the people who are at the centre of these difficult situations.

That means supporting the priorities of local NGOs, networks and communities. Then transforming the humanitarian system to be “as local as possible and as global as necessary” won’t be just a pipedream.  

Charlotte Rye is project officer for BRACED with the Overseas Development Institute.