Localisation in Aid – why isn’t it happening? What to do about it?

By Duncan Green

Spent two days this week discussing ‘Localisation in Conflict Settings’. The subject is littered with aid jargon, but important – how does the humanitarian system ‘transfer power and resources’ to ‘local actors’ rather than outsiders insisting on running the whole thing (badly) themselves? It was organised by Saferworld and Save the Children Sweden to help flesh out a research programme, but it was under the Chatham House Rule, so that’s all I can tell you about who said what.

First, what is localisation? Check out this handy spectrum from the organisers – it runs the whole way from token consultation to properly handing over the stick (and the dollars). The starting point for the discussion is failure: everyone in the aid system agrees that localisation is a good idea, but it isn’t happening. According to the background paper:

‘Of the US$16.4 billion of government funding for humanitarian assistance in 2016, 60% (US$12.3 billion) went to multilateral agencies, primarily the UN, and 20% (US$4.0 billion) went to NGOs. The NGO portion was divided between INGOs who received 85% and local and national NGOs who received 1.7% directly. In 2017, the local and national NGO portion increased to 2.7%.’

So first up we need a theory of non-change: why the inertia? A combination of ideas and institutions prevents progress:


‘Localisation is risky’: it means relinquishing even the illusion of control in messy and dangerous places. That risk could be justified in terms of greater impact and long term strengthening of local organisations, but in practice, risk in aid seen not as something to be optimised, but just a bad thing, preferably kept to zero.

Aid Diversion: What if the bad guys somehow get hold of the money? The assumption is that local partners are more likely to divert the money than local INGO staff or governments. Really? Any evidence for that assumption (I tweeted a request for it, but got tumbleweed)? The falling level of tolerance of some degree of diversion as a ‘conflict tax’ – a way of getting resources to people in need – has made everything much harder. If donors really are demanding ‘zero tolerance’ of diversion in messy places like Syria or DRC, then they risk either making aid impossible, or creating a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture that could go horribly wrong at any moment.

From ‘Needs Assessment’ to ‘Strengths Assessment’: the humanitarian system sees the world as a series of deficits it has to plug: of infrastructure, food, basic goods, ‘capacity’. Yet the people on the ground, like Evans Onyiego, who I will feature tomorrow, start from a different place – what assets, capacity and skills do local people and organisations have (answer – lots)? How can we help them build on that? That switch suddenly makes localisation look much more obviously a good idea, and suggests useful ways to achieve it. As a nice by-product, if you start with a people, community and strengths-focus, you inevitably have to confront and overcome the ‘silo problem’, whereby people experience their lives in holistic ways, rather than dividing them up into the weird and artificial categories preferred by aid (humanitarian, long term development, advocacy etc)


There are obvious institutional obstacles, like INGO bosses and fund raisers being judged by their turnover, but there are some less obvious ones too. Some INGOs are rebranding their local offices as independent organisations so that they can tap into localised funding pots. The really big conflicts like Syria generate comparably large amounts of aid: donors need to channel aid in huge chunks, that come with a massive bureaucracy of monitoring, evaluation and reporting (usually different for different donors). Local organisations are faced with either saying ‘no thanks’ and remaining subordinate players, or scaling up to become ‘mini-me’ big NGOs, with the risk that that diverts them from the kind of grassroots/ work that they actually want to do. And another comment that rang true from one INGO staffer: ‘we don’t want to devolve the power analysis etc to local partners because that’s the fun stuff!’

So Like St Augustine on chastity, the prayer becomes ‘Lord, let me localise, but not yet’.

But there is lots of good news too, including some really interesting things going on in an effort to break the logjam:

First, find out what local partners really want: they may not want to become miniature INGOs, but they do want help with improving security for their staff and partners; core funding so they can respond quickly to the chaotic events that characterise conflict settings; long term relationships that are maintained despite the frenetic pace of donor and INGO staff turnover and support for transition when the big money inevitably moves on (eg building their leadership and ability to raise local money).

Second some smart new ways of supporting them:

  • ‘Microgrants’ of a couple of thousand dollars that can be quickly disbursed to crisis-affected people and self-help groups, with minimal bureaucracy. This is happening, but is held back by fears of diversion – it feels a bit like the cash transfer discussion from 10 years ago, and a similar combination of research and advocacy could help reduce opposition. Also worth linking up with the Community Driven Development debate, which covers much of the same ground.
  • National pooled funds: donors chip into a national fund that is designed and managed by local organisations, who could also tap into other local resources like religious giving (zakat).
  • Find some less bureaucratically constrained donors to pilot new approaches – Foundations? private companies?
  • Get every INGO and aid agency that is bidding for funds to include a localisation budget line in their proposals, which is handed over to national pooled funds or other ways to support local organisations. It needs a convincing name – best we could come up with was ‘local value add’.

Finally, coming from outside the humanitarian bubble, I was struck that people in the room seemed unaware of the amount of common ground between discussions at this event, and those at, for example, the recent ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ confab. That suggests two easy wins:

  • Team up with those networks
  • Pull in some campaigners and advocacy people to design a proper influencing strategy on localisation. We just did a quick stakeholder mapping/power analysis for the internal players in a large (but nameless) INGO and even that produced some new ideas for getting things moving.

Finally, if we need an anthem, can we get someone to tweak Peter Tosh? All together now: ‘Got to localise it; don’t criticise it’ ……


Published by Oxfam blogs: From Poverty to Power

Edited by NIAS