“This is trust. This makes us stronger”

The Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) is a strong supporter of localising humanitarian assistance. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we actively promote more equitable relations between international and local actors. We do this in our strategies, our structures and responses. We have asked Hasan from Yemen and Paulin from DRC – members of the recently installed DRA Local Advisory Group –  to reflect on the topic and come with recommendations.

Giving local humanitarian actors a stronger role and more leadership, both in the design, the planning and the implementation of joint responses, is not only a matter of equitability. It also makes humanitarian assistance more effective and efficient. Grand Aspirations – Dutch Relief Alliance and the Grand Bargain 2.0 and our 2022-2026 Strategy,  tell you more about the DRA commitments and contributions to this important humanitarian system reform.

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs very much endorses these commitments. It does so by providing flexible, unearmarked and multi-year funding to the DRA, and by advocating for localisation on international forums. One of the ways the DRA gives prominence to the topic in its own structures, has been the establishment of the Local Advisory Group in 2022. This group, which has an independent status within the DRA, represents local NGOs of the Joint Responses, and actively advances the DRA localisation agenda. During its inaugural meeting in November, we took the opportunity to discuss localisation progress and barriers with two LAG members: Hasan Hajar, from the Yemeni NGO Yamaan, and Paulin Bishakabalya from the Congolese NGO CODEVAH in Eastern DRC.

Localising humanitarian assistance covers a lot of things: equitable sharing of resources, risks and responsibilities between international NGOs (INGOs) and local NGOs (LNGOs), addressing power imbalances. To put it in today’s narrative, we could even say it’s about decolonizing the humanitarian system. What is the essence of localisation in your view? 

Paulin: “Localisation is about accountability towards the persons you are serving. The ones affected by adversity. Their assessment of needs, their contextual knowledge, their capacities have to be leading in any response. It’s a matter of involving them in the whole cycle of humanitarian responses by closely working with their representational structures, like civil society and community-based organisations and local leaders.”

Hasan: “I agree but prefer to use a different terminology. It’s about equity and equality. For that, you need measurable indicators. For example, the number of local staff in senior management of INGO offices in Yemen. Currently, there are hardly any. Major decisions of INGOs in Yemen are made by foreigners, not by Yemeni’s. If INGOs take equality serious, they need to do more than only mandating local NGOs with certain tasks. Treat them like true partners. Or take funding. Most international funding is allocated according to the themes and priorities of INGOs and international donors. It is not tailored to the local context. Projecting INGO frameworks on the local realities can be very sensitive, sometimes senseless.

Can you give an example? 

Hasan: Take the issues of rape, gender-based violence or child abuse. These are big topics, INGOs have a lot funding to address them. They tell local Yemeni NGOs to spend it to directly address these issues. This will not work in Yemeni culture. You’ll have to act less insensitive and dig deeper. If you want to address child violence effectively you have to address root causes. Without diminishing the poverty of parents, for example, you will never rule out child violence. Just to remind you, a lot of people haven’t received their salaries for years in Yemen. But unfortunately, digging deeper, and taking the historical, social, cultural and political realities into account doesn’t fit into the frameworks and timelines of a lot of INGOs.”

And from DRC? 

Paulin: There are many! Take food security. I have seen it many times: INGOs come with lists of criteria and items we need to distribute. Certain seeds, food items, certain agricultural tools, quantities per household, dates for distribution etc. Even if sometimes the criteria or timelines make no sense, or are not in sync with the agricultural season, you cannot change it. This creates nonsensical situations. For example, in an area where people grow a lot of cassava, LNGOs are forced to distribute cassava. This happens. Meaning that in the end, certain humanitarian activities are not addressing what they were supposed to address, in this case malnutrition. In short, we need more flexibility, less rigidity and a bigger say in designing responses.

Are local humanitarians in a position to change these INGO conditions, frameworks and timelines? 

Hasan: Usually not. Only recently, with the DRA, have we really started co-designing responses with INGOs. First, we sit together, agree on what needs to be done, on the terminology. INGO’s then move forward with their funding and then we, local actors, can start doing what we are good at.

Paulin: There’s another common INGO logic that needs to change as well. I mean the criteria and categories they often use to decide which LNGOs receive more or less funding. The general rule is that local actors with a high-risk assessment receive less funding than low risk local NGOs. This logic will never really promote the growth and strength of local humanitarians and community-based structures in dealing with risks. While, essentially, supporting communities deal with high and immediate risks, is what humanitarian work is about. I am not talking about the DRA, but this is the kind of thinking I see in many INGOs.

What if instability, repression or other factors limit civil society organisations to co-design, and co-implement international responses? 

Paulin: “The whole point is of course that they can strengthen their capacities. Sure, that takes time. But even in the immediate term, there’s always a way to involve affected people in your response. If it’s not through civil society, then by involving communities directly into the structures of the humanitarian response. Myself, I am from South Kivu. I am part of the population that has known conflict, war and brutalities for decades. During these years, South Kivu has played a pioneering civil society role for the whole of DRC. When it comes to localisation, we were the first to organise ourselves as NGOs, raise our voice and claim more leadership in international responses. This serves as an example, that it in times of hardship, people stand up, and organise themselves.”

Would the logic of localisation also mean that, ideally, INGOs need to step back completely and LNGOs take over? 

Hasan: Not at all. It is not about not having INGOs in the country. We seek a balance. Hence the equity and equality. We both have important and complimentary roles and responsibilities to play.

Paulin: I agree, this is true for DRC as well.

Is this balance a matter of 50/50, for example also in terms of access to direct funding? 

Hasan: That depends. If local NGOs are in dire straits and do not have the capacities to run bigger humanitarian operations, then you need to strengthen them. Once they are stronger, INGO’s can step back. It’s gradual. True INGO-LNGO partnerships make local organisations grow stronger.

The Grand Bargain Agreement of 2016 was the start increased localisation efforts in the international humanitarian community. Six years on, do you see any progress on the ground?

Hasan: I do, though not a lot. Some INGOs have changed in the way they work with us. But as a sector, no real progress has been made. It’s not structural. There are no strict localisation indicators and guidelines applicable to all INGOs.

Paulin: In Congo, a lot has changed. Access and participation of local actors in the international humanitarian coordination mechanisms, for example of UNOCHA, have significantly improved. Before 2016, we were simply not represented. Today, we are, not only as providers of information, but as decision makers. This means that, finally, high level decision making is based on local realities and local voices. As for access to direct funding, this has increased significantly. In South Kivu, direct UNOCHA pooled funding to local NGOs went up from 6% to 60% since 2016. Before, within the DRA, as a local NGO, we were dependent on what the INGO was willing to give us [in the DRA every local NGO is associated with one of the Netherlands-based INGOs. Nowadays, in DR Congo, there is a DRA obligation to give us 35% of the funding they have for a joint response.

Does more direct funding automatically mean more leadership for local actors, more equitable relations, and more control on the ground? 

Hasan: If together with the funding, we are also meaningfully involved in designing the response, yes, it does. With the DRA, that is now the case.

Paulin: Having more direct funding is important, but it’s not solving all the problems. In fact, you can get the direct funding, but international representatives, especially from UN agencies and some INGOs, can still treat you like a child. They ask you to account for 15 dollars you spent, by sending five different emails to five different persons. Financial transparency is hugely important, but this is something completely different. This focus on micromanagement is inefficient and sometimes disrespectful. Above all, it’s a lack of trust. Without trust, there’s no partnership.

Hasan: In Yemen it is different, because financial monitoring is mostly done by independent third-party agencies. This helps a lot. When the governance and monitoring, the auditing and annual reporting mechanisms are there and well taken care of, my feeling is that this hugely enhances trust between all parties, also between LNGOs and INGOs. And Yamaan doesn’t work with UN agencies, that might also explain the difference.

Apart from sharing resources and responsibilities, localisation also entails sharing risks. You, as first responders living inside the conflict and not in the safe surroundings of most internationals, run most of the risks that come with humanitarian work. Do you have the feeling INGOs give you the time and the means to deal with those risks? 

Paulin: I am responsible for what my team and myself are doing. I will never willingly put my team in difficulties. I assess the risk of field missions, and will always try to avoid problems. If I make mistakes in that regard, my INGO partner can never be held responsible for that. They don’t have to.

But do INGOs take those risks into account, in their budgeting, in their timelines? Because dealing with security risks, means dealing with implementation delays, loss of property, pressure on staff, even loss of life.

Paulin: Discussing and negotiating these matters with INGOs take a lot of time and effort, indeed. In fact, often INGOs are not fully aware of the risks on the ground. Take purchasing an extra motorbike, for staff to go into the field. This is actually also a security matter. It can take years before the INGO agrees – or not – to finance this. And mostly the focus of those kind of discussion is on costs and finance. The security aspect is often overlooked by the INGO.

The painful thing is that, when internationals pay visits to crisis areas, security is always the number one priority. Can we say that today’s international humanitarian responses, also the ones of the DRA, do not sufficiently take the risks of local actors into account? 

Paulin: Not yet.

Hasan: Again, it’s different in Yemen. To my feeling, in the DRA joint responses in Yemen, so far, we have a joint INGO-LNGO understanding of risks. INGOs and donors provide us with tools and policies that help us to address and minimise risks, and to run our operations in a safer way. When there are project delays because of the insecurity, they allow for grace periods. We are insured for theft of humanitarian goods and items.

Paulin: In Congo, this is not the case. When we get an amount of money, for example from the UN, to implement a project, it’s hard enough to cover the expenses of all the activities. The amounts per allocation are set, even per health zone. They don’t give extra money for insurance.

Hasan: It is very much a matter of how you have negotiated these things with INGOs and donors and the contract you have with them.

You often hear people say that localisation makes humanitarian responses more effective. It makes sense of course. Why have strangers from far away come over and do what local responders can do better? Can you give me one example of increased effectiveness thanks to localisation? 

Hasan: In 2018, Yamaan and Dutch INGO Cordaid started a health project. It had a performance-based financing (PBF) approach. This was totally new in Yemen. Cordaid took the lead, but shared all its PBF knowledge and expertise with us. There was extensive training. We continued improving health care services in Yemen together, but Yamaan then took the lead as main implementor and even managed to raise additional funding from different donors in 2020. Cordaid is still involved, but minimally, as technical consultant. This is the empowerment of local actors, this is knowledge sharing and handing over responsibilities. This is localisation. It works and makes humanitarian and development work more efficient. There are other examples, from other INGOs. And I can say that. Overall, localisation of the past six years, has definitely resulted in a stronger civil society in Yemen

Paulin: Now that local Congolese actors have a bigger say, humanitarian responses are implemented where it matters most, tailored to the needs and realities of those who suffer most. More so than before. We know where people suffer most, we know the routes of displacement. We have better access to isolated areas that are out of bound to internationals. We share the culture, the language, we know the risks, sensitivities and the history of the communities we work for. And we can quickly adapt to the volatility and instability of crisis. This is our habitat as responders, personally and professionally.

What are the localisation barriers you’d like to see tackled in the near future? 

Paulin: Localisation is still too much dependant on individual INGO and donor representatives. Make it structural, not personal.

Hasan: We need clear localisation indicators. Both INGOs and LNGOs may have a lot of ambitions to localise humanitarian assistance, but we need to be able to hold them accountable. Accountability mechanisms are lacking.

Paulin: The Grand Bargain agreements are very valuable, but they are statements of intention. We now need rules, indicators all parties contractually need to stick to. In the DRC Joint Response, the DRA is doing that now, translating localisation ambitions into contractual obligations.

Can you give examples from DRC and Yemen of how the DRA has contributed to more leadership for local NGOs? 

Paulin: In Congo, there is the obligation of INGOs to at least contract one local partner, and 35% of the funding for a joint response now has to go directly to local NGOs. Not an intention, an obligation. It’s a good first step, at least things are moving forward. Localisation is a gradual process.

Ten Congolese NGOs are now part of the DRA Joint Response. The INGOs we are working with are with us every step of the way, investing time and money in the monitoring and accountability capacities of all these NGOs, training staff, sharing knowledge. Importantly, the DRA grants us money for capacity strengthening and we are free to spend it the way we deem necessary. This is trust. This makes us stronger.

Hasan: When we started working with the DRA in Yemen, in 2018, we were the only Yemeni NGO. Today, there are eight. As the partnership with the DRA is very much based on capacity strengthening and sharing of knowledge and expertise, I can say the DRA has truly been instrumental in strengthening Yemeni civil society.

Isn’t it odd, somehow, that it takes foreigners from a stable and safe environment to make Yemeni civil society responders stronger in dealing with acute instability and insecurity? 

Hasan: It’s not all about making us better in doing what we are doing on the ground. But about external exposure and knowledge sharing making us wiser and stronger. We learn a lot from the experiences of colleagues in DRC, Somalia, and all the other countries. We learn a lot from the INGO perspectives. It makes us stronger, as colleagues, as competitors in the international donor arena, as civil society organisations in our own countries.

How could the DRA perform better, when it comes to localisation? 

Hasan: In 2018 and 2019, the DRA worked with annual budgets and contracts. This is very stressful for us. We have asked for a longer commitment, and they have now switched to bi-annual budgeting. Which is an improvement. Longer term contracts make a huge difference, also for local NGO staff engagement. How can you work on something sustainably, in health care, in food security, if aid workers never know whether they will still be working in a few months’ time?

I wouldn’t call longer term contracts only a matter of trust. Trust is built on performance. If you perform well, you will be contracted again. But it is a matter of being able to train staff, retain them and making good use of increased capacities you have invested in. It’s also a matter of minimising staff stress in a setting that is already stressful in itself.

Paulin: I totally agree on this. I’d like to add another recommendation. Why, if we have an equal relationship with INGOs based on trust, can the DRA not give us direct access to its funding. Sure, 35% of DRA funding goes to local NGOs. But we do not get this funding directly, it is transferred to us by the Dutch members of the DRA.

Hasan: This is the way the DRA partnership is built: we are partners of INGOs based in the Netherlands, and through them are we part of the DRA. In the logic of equality, it makes sense that the local NGOs in Yemen and DRC and the other countries where joint responses take place, are direct partners of the Dutch Relief Alliance. From our perspective, this would be a step forward.

Last question. Let’s think of the year 2030. What is the one fundamental change in the humanitarian system you’d like to see materialised by then? 

Paulin: I have three wishes. I’d love to see the government of Congo financing at least 50% of the humanitarian assistance in the country. This too is localisation: the financial contribution of national governments, their financial support to local humanitarian organisations. At the moment we do not get any financial support from that side. The money is there, the political priorities aren’t. Seeing that change, is my biggest wish. We have advocated for it strongly over the years. Unsuccessfully. And in fact, lobby and advocacy support from the international community helps us in standing stronger towards our own government representatives.

My second wish for 2030: seeing that the coordination mechanisms of international humanitarian responses in DRC are led by Congolese actors.

And lastly: to see a stronger connection between humanitarian responses and longer term development efforts.

Hasan: I can relate to that. In Yemen, we need to build additional trust between government structures and civil society. This will greatly harmonise all humanitarian work. And I also hope to see a government that is less dependent on the international community and on local NGOs. We are actively working on that. For example, when Yamaan starts rehabilitating a hospital, we convince the government to provide and pay for staff. It takes time and effort from our side, but there is willingness from their side. It works. This kind of collaboration is the way forward.

And we need to link immediate relief and development a lot more. If you focus purely on immediate relief, without investing in structural development, humanitarian efforts, however important they are, are not creating a better future. Linking relief and development creates a cycle. If you don’t do that, investments simply evaporate.


Interview: Frank van Lierde

Photo: Ammar Bamatraf, for Care International, in Yemen