The humanitarian sector is far behind its ‘localization’ aims

The case for responsible transitions in humanitarian action

April 18, 2023
Author: Hasangani Edema

While the delineation of humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding does not exist in the everyday lives of people, the international system continues to operate in silos. The status quo separates how funding trickles down to communities and leads to duplication of actions of international response as multiple organizations work on similar programs within the same communities. Short, fragmented responses that deprioritize leadership of people most proximate to the context do not adequately address evolving needs or outcomes either. Ultimately, the collective impact of all humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding actions is limited. This is a challenge for effective locally led action, but new models are emerging and hold promise in humanitarian contexts.

The humanitarian sector is too far behind in its localization aims

In the humanitarian sector, the urgency and life-threatening nature of disasters as well as the colonial roots of humanitarian principles have reinforced a sector that values international response over a local one, rarely funds local organizations, and continues to prioritize short-term projects with local actors as implementers/beneficiaries rather than true partners. The perception that Western actors are uniquely moral and qualified to intervene during conflicts and can be viewed as neutral or as an arbitrator needs to change. The call to shift the focus of humanitarian action from a Western-centric approach to a more locally led and community-centered one is becoming increasingly urgent and relevant.

Today’s humanitarian structures continue to debate the effectiveness of current structures and approaches to address complex and intersecting crises. The humanitarian system is often too focused on a reactive approach insufficiently addressing the underlying factors that contribute to vulnerability and instability and often prioritize the needs and perspectives of international actors over those of local communities and organizations. This can lead to a lack of understanding of local contexts, needs, and capacities, and can perpetuate power imbalances within the sector. The call for responses to sit across the humanitarian-development-peacebuilding (HDP) nexus to best support and shift power towards communities is growing louder. It is high time to make way for a system that is led by local organizations and actors. The question now becomes, how do we get there?

Responsible transitions can help us get there

‘Responsible transitions’ as the SAS+ project defines it is the withdrawal of an international organization from a context following a close-down of a program; or a transfer of responsibility, capacity, and ownership from an international to a local organization/ community whilst maintaining some form of relationship. Transitions are “responsible” when planned, jointly led, and gradual to best support local leadership.

In reality, each community has its own early warning systems, contingency plans, or stockpiles of supplies and equipment. Many are robust and equitable; others are severely constrained or only serve community members with power. At its best, international humanitarian action can bridge the gap between the existing preparedness structures of a country during a crisis. Yet international organizations are not designed to be in contexts of crisis for a long-period of time. Too rarely do we see responsible transition plans designed by humanitarian organizations or even widely spoken about within the humanitarian system as an option for planning, such as in disaster risk reduction.

Where responsible transitions in humanitarian action do occur, they are centered on transferring power responsibly to people most proximate to the problems and issues they are facing. While there is traction among the global community about “shifting power” to local actors, the actual ‘how’ to do this in the humanitarian system is very limited and often involves token changes without local control over decisions. Some agencies like Danish Refugee Council and WeRobotics are engaging by example in carrying out thoughtful transition processes. 

With these and other groups, for the last six years, the Stopping As Success (SAS+) consortium has been learning about and walking alongside organizations who are planning for and undergoing transition. We have seen the transformative power of responsible transition processes in development contexts and are seeing ripe opportunities in humanitarian contexts. We are inspired by the continued action to shift power in humanitarian aid and the positive outcomes for communities. 

How to transition responsibly in humanitarian response

SAS+ resources are a great starting point for reflections for INGOs, CSOs/NGOs and donors to start thinking about responsible transitions. Here’s a summary of some of the key points and critical lessons that might be relevant for humanitarian organizations – both international and local – when planning and going through transition processes:  

  1. Build strong relationships with partners rooted in trust: The projectized nature of humanitarian projects can make it difficult to sustain long-term relationships with local partners. However, these relationships are critical to ensuring partnerships are rooted in trust and that the work is able to continue once the international agency leaves. 
  2. Fund local organizations directly: It is not economically viable to fund large agencies as opposed to addressing the compounding and complex needs of those in dire conditions. Recent studies have shown that with a 25% shift of Official Development Assistance from international to local intermediary structures, local intermediaries could deliver programming that is 32% more cost efficient on salaries and overheads than international intermediaries. Donors with heavily bureaucratic ways of working need to adapt to a systems thinking approach in unpacking the issues of siloed funding and shift their mindset into trusting local partners. To that end, the START Network has a multitude of resources on locally-led action.
  3. Scale up and invest in national response structures: The initiatives taken by local leaders in Vanuatu’s response to tropical cyclone Harold, along with increasing evidence of the effectiveness of ‘simple aid‘, can serve as a guide for international actors to step back, allow room for local actors to take charge, and simultaneously support existing infrastructure and enhance community response.
  4. Value and fund national staff: National staff are often at the frontlines of response, risking their lives for a fraction of the pay that international staff receive. They are likely the most proximate and are embedded within community structures themselves. It is important to consider how best to bridge this international and national pay gap and promote more equitable and meaningful performance management of aid workers. 
  5. Risk sharing and collaborative partnerships: Cultivating intentional partnerships and working towards understanding contextual needs and risk awareness is a necessary initial step because local partners know the context and are well-positioned to identify risks and appropriate mitigation strategies. Towards this goal, responsibility primarily lies with INGOs, UN Agencies, and government donors to consider funding and investing in partnerships that enable local actors to gain opportunities in improving risk forecasting and preparedness plans, and encouraging deliberate efforts to share risk in partnerships prior to transitioning.
  6. Fund long-term projects with transition in mind: Local partners are often brought onto projects as implementers and sub-grantees, which limits their ability to make decisions and determine the outcome of the project. When a project is planned with a transition in mind from the beginning, it is often more contextually-relevant and sustainable.  
  7. Engage in mutual capacity strengthening: International staff learn a great deal by being in partnership with and working alongside local actors who are often experts in their own communities and context-specific issues. When able to shape and tailor capacity strengthening activities, local partners are able to determine the skills they would like to strengthen in order to access funding or other opportunities. This type of mutual capacity strengthening is an impactful way to support learning and sustainability throughout and after the partnership.  
  8. Work in a spirit of complementarity: The age of international agencies rushing into a response and then abruptly leaving when funding ends is over. Historically, this response is not effective to the long-term sustainability of communities and local organizations. Therefore, it’s important for international organizations to complement existing local efforts and fill gaps that are necessary to address the issues. 
  9. Be mindful of language to support power shifts: Language is a powerful tool that sets the framework for ways of working with partners. It is important for international organizations to define what is meant by ‘local’ or ‘civil society’ and to do away with antiquated terms like ‘beneficiary’. Also, international organizations can benefit from co-defining what supporting local actors means and what the end achievement of this looks like with local partners before the award starts.
  10. Engage in thought provoking and challenging conversations: A big part of the work to shift power to local organizations is changing individual minds about why it’s important and what potential impact it can have. If you’re struggling with these concepts, or know a colleague who is, continue to engage in conversations—or read articles—that stretch your imagination for what is possible in your role, within your organizations, and beyond. 

Transitions are a journey: We’re here to walk with you! 

As a set of tools and an accompaniment helpdesk, SAS+ is a key resource that INGOs and local actors can tap into on the journey to implementing responsible transitions to enable locally led action. Our tools, resources, lessons, and guidance can be tailored and our team can walk alongside yours to support your change process.

SAS+ is also a learning partnership with donors to inform future policy and practice needed to transform humanitarian structures. By engaging with SAS+, your experience becomes part of the evidence base needed to accelerate real change.  

Let’s talk! Contact Hasi Edema at [email protected] to discuss transitions in humanitarian action or ways for SAS+ to support your team.