In 2021 and 2022, Oxfam and partner organizations and networks in Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Pacific and West Africa convened 10 online learning events related to local humanitarian leadership (LHL). In all, 450 people from 30 countries attended, of whom 60% represented local and national NGOs and 40% represented international organizations. The goals were to improve and share a collective understanding of the issues surrounding local leadership among learning participants, to get a snapshot of where LHL is now, to improve and expand networks, and to put forward a global agenda to speed and improve the process of localization.
PROGRESS ON LHL
Participants, especially local actors, reported some good news: there is a growing commitment to supporting locally led humanitarian action, and new calls for international actors to deliver on the LHL commitments and promises they made at the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016. The local leadership agenda has advanced significantly in some countries—including Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, and the Philippines—where bigger and better grants are being transferred to local actors, and NGOs are increasingly able to participate in joint planning and decision-making. Some NGOs around the world are reporting more opportunities for multiyear funding. Some donors are providing direct funding for local and national actors. INGOs are developing new partner-led models and ways of working. INGOs and NGOs are carrying out joint assessments. Local and national organizations are creating and strengthening their networks and federations. Global South leaders are better represented in the current Grand Bargain Facilitation Group, with a Sherpa2 coming from Indonesia. Local emergency response funds are enabling resources to reach local and national actors quickly and directly. There is growing involvement of youth in humanitarian action and some participation of the private sector. Increasingly, capacity trainings are addressing the needs of the NGOs, as defined by the NGOs themselves. And as the system shifts to local leadership, some INGOs are understanding that they, too, need training in order to better understand their roles in the transition.
Nonetheless, the challenges have proven stubborn:
INGOs continue to capture the lion’s share of donations that pass through their hands, and they frequently fail to provide, or share, indirect cost recovery (ICR), the overhead expenses that both INGOs and NGOs require to keep their organizations functioning.
The response coordination mechanisms built around international actors still fail to embrace local and national NGOs: meetings are not conducted in or translated into local languages, outputs from the meetings often fail to reach local actors in a timely way, and narrow views about who qualifies as a legitimate humanitarian actor mean that women and the organizations they lead are drastically underrepresented in cluster meetings and on Humanitarian Country Teams. More broadly, many organizations that participate in humanitarian response and other activities—including women’s rights organizations,3 labor unions, student unions, and faith-based organizations—are currently excluded from the system and thus lack resources and influence.
Short-term funding cycles and a project-based approach to grant making, particularly in the absence of appropriate ICR, keep local and national organizations off balance, always wondering if they will survive another year.
INGOs that act as intermediaries between donors and local and national organizations put too much emphasis on ensuring donor compliance and too little on building strong partnerships with local actors and involving them in project design and decision making.
It is increasingly difficult for NGOs to achieve donor compliance with the current systems of accountability, which involve lengthy reports and frequent monitoring visits. In the face of concerns about terrorism and corruption, requirements are becoming stricter and burdensome for local actors.
Although local and national NGOs play an enormous role in humanitarian activities, the majority of their INGO partners still fail to reflect that in their public communications.
Donors and their international intermediaries often fail to understand the pressures and constraints that local and national organizations face and lack the flexibility that would enable NGOs to adapt to real-life conditions on the ground.
In many countries, civil society is under siege from autocratic governments. This can translate into difficulties registering as an NGO and severe constraints on the flow of international funds to local and national actors.
INGOs routinely engage in practices that are unfair and harmful to NGOs— for example, capturing exchange-rate gains but forcing partners to absorb losses, offering letters of agreement that only the international partner has the right to terminate, refusing to allow NGOs to treat project staff wages as project costs.
In some countries, central governments are shifting humanitarian responsibilities and functions to municipalities and villages. Though this could potentially strengthen local leadership, it is often carried out without a parallel effort to build on the capacity of the more local government bodies.
Participants made recommendations to improve and accelerate the localization process and to boost local humanitarian leadership:
International actors should adopt policies requiring them to defer to local leadership.
International actors should provide direct and flexible funding to local and national NGOs.
International actors need to recognize the full spectrum of local and national actors that take part in humanitarian work, including those whose mission is not primarily humanitarian.
Response coordination bodies should be inclusive and both welcoming and accommodating toward more local and less traditional humanitarian actors.
Funding policies and practices that leave effective local and national NGOs in a chronic struggle to survive should be challenged and replaced.
International actors should examine all their policies in relation to partners through the lenses of fairness and equality.
International actors should shift the emphasis on compliance to a focus on trust and should support downward and horizontal accountability, not simply upward accountability to their donors.
Central governments should ensure that local governments are equipped to manage humanitarian disasters.
Local and national actors would benefit from increased access to training materials and research reports.
All actors should support development of strong networks to strengthen humanitarian response.
All actors should support local efforts to handle small crises that have the potential to become catastrophes.
All actors should work to protect civil society space.
FEEDBACK FOR OXFAM
Oxfam requested feedback on its own policies and partnerships.
On the positive side, participating local actors told us:
Oxfam invests in building the capacity of partners through extensive trainings, coaching, and mentoring and provides small project grants for institutional capacity strengthening;
Oxfam is flexible with partners in relation to contracts, amendments, and work plans; and
Oxfam advocates on behalf of LHL with UN agencies, INGOs, donors, and governments and acts as a connector and broker on LHL issues.
On the negative side, they said:
the percentage of humanitarian funding that Oxfam transfers to partners should be higher; currently, it varies widely from country to country;
A significant number of Oxfam offices require monthly financial reports from partners before the release of the next tranche of funding, which can result in payment delays;
Oxfam’s support for partner overhead expenses is limited; and
where Oxfam continues to implement cash programming directly, partners feel it indicates a lack of trust in local NGOs.
Suggestions for improvement include:
extend funding opportunities to a wider array of NGOs;
explore and test new ways to fund local and national actors and support their leadership, especially women’s organizations, in humanitarian responses;
broker direct relationships between partners and donors; and
provide training—including coaching and secondment—not only to help strengthen partners’ humanitarian capacity but also to help partners become stronger organizations.
Overall, the LHL learning series showed an improvement in the state of local humanitarian leadership, largely as a result of the actions of local actors, who have become more vocal, more organized, and more sustained in their calls for the humanitarian system to be locally led. Most of these efforts are happening at subnational to national levels; the next stage is to connect these pockets of local movement to each other for a truly powerful force for change. And this is where above-country structures such as INGOs, UN agencies, and other international stakeholders like Oxfam can provide support and complementarity: by offering technical resources, knowledge management, visibility, funding, and a brokering role.
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