Local actors and the international humanitarian system: Improving a love-hate relationship

With higher frequency and complexity of humanitarian crises, but with humanitarian funding increasingly falling short, theinternational humanitarian system is challenged to meet humanitarian needs effectively – one of the buzzwords inthe humanitarian sector.

I ‘accidently’ became involved with the humanitariansector during an internship at the Humanitarian Aid Department at the Ministryof Foreign Affairs. Having focused mainly on conflict and security studiesduring my studies, I never had an outspoken ambition in the humanitarian sector. But after that 6-month internship, I am now eager to learn more about the struggles and debates in the field, particularly from the NGO-perspective but also related to the field of development in general. I strongly believe that relief is a first step in stabilisation, which is needed for development in the broadest sense. “It’s not that relief aid isn’t necessary, but when it does nothing to address the issues of why the crises are repeating themselves, it becomes wasteful and ineffective.” (See Oxfam America report on Afghanistan).

It has been two months since I started working with the Humanitarian Unit at Oxfam Novib in The Hague. I was surprised to learn about the challenge of including local actors in international structures. While working on humanitarian capacity building and strengthening local actors, I was quickly submerged in the many reports that have been written on local humanitarian actors. These actors do not only include local and national NGOs, but also government on different levels and the private sector. Yet local humanitarian actors are not always recognised as such, and international organisations often overwhelm the local structures (with the right intentions, I believe as an eternal optimist). But I strongly believe that locally-led response is the future. Luckily, I am not alone in this. In his TED-talk below, Peter Walker argues that we need to radically change our basic way of working: Centralised, top-down aid is failing, and we need a tailored and locally relevant product:

It is a hot topic in the sector. A consortium of UK-based NGO’s published a report ‘Missed Again’ pointing towards the lack of partnerships with local humanitarian actors in the Philippines during the Haiyan Response in 2010. Unfortunately, it reconfirms the findings from the earlier report ‘Missed Opportunities’. Lessons learned? Not yet…

At the Dutch Humanitarian Summit last February, one session was devoted to local humanitarian capacity. The debate clarified (at least) one thing to me:  

Local humanitarian actors and the international humanitarian system are in a love-hate relationship:They cannot live without each other, but at the moment, they do not know how to be together either.

Oxfam is taking part in this discussion too. In January, a Programme Development Workshop took place, with representatives from different affiliates and from country offices in Somalia, Pakistan and El Salvador. Together, the contours of the 5 year Strong Local Humanitarian Actors Programme were developed, focusing not only on the strength of local actors, but also on the space and the enabling environment for local humanitarian actors and on how Oxfam can adapt to the changes. The underlying rationale is that these aspects together can contribute to a leading role for local humanitarian actors. With Oxfam Novib funding, implementation of the projects in 2015 (in CAMEXCA & Peru, Somalia, Pakistan, Mozambique, Pakistan and Vietnam) is starting as we speak.

Photo Credit: Dutch Humanitarian Summit. Visuele Notulen (2015)

Oxfam has been working on Humanitarian Capacity Building for many years now. Despite my little experience in this organisation, I conclude that there are two main differences between this Programme and Oxfam’s previous efforts. First, it also contains an aspect on reflecting on Oxfam’s own role, thereby taking responsibility. The current system is rather rusty, so change is not easy to come about, but one can always start with a little self-reflection and take responsibility for the first (baby-)steps (see our previous Oxfam Novib Academy blogpost on changing the world). Second, the approach starts from a Fresh Analysis of current country capacity (per country), based on a workshop involving local partners. The milestones and agenda will be set by local partners in this workshop – including NGOs, private sector and government as much as possible– rather than by Oxfam in The Hague or in the countries. The framework was developed in a top-down manner, but the intention is that the implementation will be locally-driven.

Even though I am passionate about the work I am doing now and I truly believe in local ownership and a locally-driven humanitarian response, one concern remains: It has proven very difficult to establish a correlation between capacity building and (improved) humanitarian response. I can talk about various experiences in which capacity-building has supported local NGOs, has improved links between NGOs and government structures, but how can you determine whether the response has improved because of you(r Programme)? I think of this as a crucial question and I am looking forward to finding the answer this year!

Michelle van den Berg

Michelle is currently working at the Humanitarian Unit at Oxfam Novib. Although she has been around marginally longer than most of us (read: started working here two weeks earlier), she has remained a mystery to the Academy until recently. When she is not confused about what she calls her ‘Third Culture’ identity, she is debating on whether local capacity building precedes humanitarian response.


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