INGOs and the Localisation Agenda

January 1, 2020

INGOs presently dominate large parts of the humanitarian sector. They possess the capacity to build a presence where they are needed and the funds to implement multiple large-scale projects simultaneously.

Localisation, on the other hand, is about decentralising power, money and resources in humanitarian and development aid.

It’s about local actors influencing action and making decisions throughout – with international actors (including INGOs) stepping in only if and when necessary. What role do, can and should INGOs play in the localisation agenda?

The benefits of localisation

The benefits of localisation are clear. Local actors are already present “in the field”.

Immediately following a disaster, it is they who mitigate the effects until additional help arrives.

This begs the question of why outsiders should decide what is best for people on the ground. Is the best approach really for organisations from the Global North to speak on behalf of local actors (often based in the Global South)?

Despite claims that localisation is in the best interests of both international humanitarians and beneficiary communities, local actors are usually severely under-valued. They are often seen as useful only when international actors cannot operate – or as a means to enable access for international actors. A full adoption of the localisation agenda would result in funds going directly to local actors to aid their operations, which means that humanitarian action could be executed more effectively and efficiently. This is due to a number of reasons:

  1. Local actors have usually better access to places, information and knowledge of local cultures, sensitivities, practices, priorities and needs;
  2. Local actors are often more capable than international actors (assumptions that local actors are less capable than international actors or less reliable with donors’ money are deeply problematic);
  3. Time, money and resources would not need to be spent on “setting up”, thereby maximising efficiency;
  4. Local actors can help prevent causing harm (we have all heard about that aid worker going “abroad” to “help”, but who knows very little about the cultural context they will be working in and consequently ends up doing as much – or more – harm as good).

Transferring power: risks and opportunities

At the heart of the localisation process is a transference of power. It is crucial that this is a genuine devolving of power:

power should shift not to local elites and powerful organisations but to the communities themselves and the crisis-affected people.

This shift in power should enable local actors to lead processes and decision-making, and receive greater sums of direct funding.

Acquiring funding is crucial – it is too common in the humanitarian sector for local actors to do the majority of the work and receive a very small percentage of funding.

Donors have attempted to superficially address these power imbalances between small and large, north and south NGOs by, for example, stipulating the applicant organisation must be based in a certain country, or their annual income must be below a certain amount.

This is not enough, because national affiliated NGOs, who have access to greater resources and which are governed by their headquarters in the global North, are often still eligible for these grants.  

There is also a perception that localisation is a risk that is not worth it.

It puts international actors in a position where they must relinquish their control to the locals who will make their own decisions.

Where do national affiliated NGOs/INGOs fit in?

National affiliated NGOs often have an advantage over independent, local NGOs.

By existing as a separate legal entity and fulfilling whatever criteria is specified by the donor, the affiliated NGOs are eligible to apply for the same funding, which for example requires organisations to be based in a particular location.

However, by virtue of the INGO they are affiliated with, they have greater capacity and access to resources when applying for funding.

Despite often working with local actors, INGOs do not quite meet localisation demands.

This is due to the failure to transfer power from international to local actors. With INGOs, power ultimately lies in the hands of non-locals – when the country office opens and closes, how funds are used, which programmes are to be implemented, to name just a few critical questions. For this reason, national affiliated NGOs are often perceived as “internationals-in-disguise”.

Ways forward

Without an alignment of priorities between the field and international headquarters, humanitarian aid will lack efficiency. How can a middle-class European working in the organisation’s London office fully understand the needs of the Indonesian field worker and the communities they work with, if they have no full picture of what life is like on the ground?

How can they provide them with the necessary resources and implement the projects they need if their priorities inherently differ?

This is why localisation advocates for power to be vested in local organisations.

Localisation, however, does not render INGOs useless – they are still needed but in a different capacity. For example, a local organisation may lack the capacity to carry out monitoring and evaluation processes.

In this case, the help of an INGO would be useful for the local organisation – but it is crucial that there is a genuine partnership between the organisations.

Local actors should not and cannot be used as though they lack their own priorities and agendas.

Because in the end, the role of INGOs is always: “to yield the space. Back up – fade out, fade away. Our role was always meant to be temporary”.

Written by Madiha Zeb Sadiq

Research and Development Assistant

Further Reading:

An Islamic perspective on how to avoid negatives effects of NGO programmes

Localisation and NGOs: Different Interpretations, Different Outcomes