Each year on August 19th, World Humanitarian Day rolls around with calls to celebrate people helping people.
But for many humanitarian workers, the day prompts reflective questions. Does this annual recognition truly catalyse meaningful improvements in how we deliver humanitarian assistance worldwide? Or does it risk being a feel-good exercise without driving real change?
Looking back over the last ten years, I’ve watched the humanitarian sector wrestle intensely with the urgent need to modernise itself. The creaking machinery of how humanitarian assistance is delivered worldwide is clearly due an overhaul. But reforming complex systems and entrenched ways of working is easier said than done. A flurry of major reform initiatives have emerged over the years – the Transformative Agenda, the Grand Bargain, and the World Humanitarian Summit. On paper, they outline bold visions for revolutionising humanitarian assistance through improved coordination, efficiency, and accountability, bringing an air of optimism that we might reshape a broken system.
The harsh realities of humanitarian reform
Despite the lofty rhetoric around humanitarian reform, marginalised populations globally continue to suffer from poorly coordinated, fragmented humanitarian support. Reform advocates argue that clustering humanitarian agencies into sectors improves response capacity and reduces duplication. But as organisations cling to their mandates, people in need of support fall through the cracks between siloed groups. While coordination may have marginally improved in some contexts, the system still lacks accountability when failures occur.
Conceptually, the push towards localised humanitarian leadership sounds progressive. However, a lack of funding and trust constrains the transition in practice. International agencies dominate, often displaying startling blindness to the realities on the ground.
No one disputes the ethical imperatives underpinning calls for reform. If World Humanitarian Day genuinely seeks to remind us of reform’s crucial role, we must interrogate the unintended consequences and ask challenging questions about well-intentioned initiatives. There are no panaceas for complex humanitarian crises, but reform efforts can and must do better for people in need of support.
The dilemma of localising humanitarian assistance
The rhetoric surrounding the “localisation of aid” paints an inspiring vision of empowered communities leading humanitarian efforts. However, the reality reveals a striking gap between theory and practice; shifting control away from international NGOs proves far more complex in practice.
While paying lip service to the importance of local knowledge, international agencies cling to control over funding and operations. Local actors report tokenistic partnerships, not meaningful transfers of resources or decision-making authority. When funds do flow locally, excessive compliance burdens constrain flexibility. ‘Localisation’ becomes a box-ticking exercise, not a good-faith shift in power.
Understandably, large INGOs resist changes that threaten their influence and business models. During my work with different humanitarian organisations, local actors also highlighted the legitimate challenges of managing donor expectations amid crises. Is directly funding local actors setting them up for failure under rules designed for larger agencies?
Localisation demands more than tweaks around the edges of an entrenched system. It requires interrogating assumptions, incentives, and power. The path forward demands nuance, patience, and ideological consistency. Progress will come incrementally, but it must be structural. If we believe local actors are essential, we must make space for them to lead.
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The complexity of locally led humanitarian support
Investing in local capacity and leadership is crucial for sustainable, context-appropriate humanitarian assistance. Homegrown heroes with deep community ties spearhead solutions that resonate. However, capacity building takes time, and crises require an immediate response. Are under-resourced local groups being set up for failure when expected to assume control quickly?
Similarly, “nurturing partnerships” between international and local actors sound collaborative. But on whose terms? Too often, local voices go unheard in critical decisions around response models and resource allocation. Genuine power-sharing requires confronting the inherent inequality baked into these relationships from the start.
Direct funding for local actors is essential, but not without challenges. Rigid, bureaucratic donor requirements often mismatch local realities. When funding flows directly to local groups, international NGOs may resist losing influence over operations and resources.
Navigating challenges and leading the way
The UK touts its commitment to localisation through initiatives like the Charter for Change. However, enacting meaningful change within bureaucratic systems proves far easier said than done. Beyond rhetoric, tangible progress is lacking.
Government aid agencies must align their priorities and funding to localisation goals. But political incentives often point elsewhere. Budget cuts severely constrain room for shifting power to local actors. This challenge will be exacerbated by a reduction in the UK’s humanitarian and migration budgets for 2023–2024, with a 20.95% decrease from £55.3m to £43.7m.
Advocates propose steps like integrating localisation principles into policies and building local capacity. But realising transformative change will take more than technical fixes within existing structures. Direct funding for local groups is crucial. Partnerships between international and local actors necessitate confronting inherent power imbalances head-on. Well-intentioned networks risk being performative without this.
Rhetoric cannot substitute the willingness to interrogate incentives and power dynamics. Localisation deserves more than publicly embracing easy solutions that leave underlying structures intact. Progress may seem slow, but it is only through substantive reforms that local actors will truly lead humanitarian efforts. The path forward demands patience and commitment in the face of complexity.