“We have to shoot for the stars and land on the moon”

Improving effectiveness by leveraging local knowledge, context awareness and connections with communities. Localisation contributes to more equitable partnerships between local and international actors. For those reasons locally led action is one of the key priorities of the Dutch Relief Alliance. In this interview Shahida Suleiman, the chair of our Local Advisory Group and Deputy Director at Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC) tells us how we are doing on localisation. What is needed and how an we improve?

Interview: Wereld in Woorden

How about localisation within the Dutch Relief Alliance?
“Within the Joint Responses of the alliance, local actors manage up to 35 per cent of the budgets, in line with the alliance’s target. But some international NGOs don’t disburse that kind of amounts, maybe because of internal mechanisms. Local partners within a Joint Response therefore experience big differences. My wish is that the partnerships will look the same for all local actors.”

Can you give an example of a recent advice of the Local Advisory Group?
“We haven’t given any concrete advice yet, instead we developed a work plan which identifies key strategic areas we are going to focus on. The first one is co-leadership within the Joint Responses. Normally the architecture is that one of the Dutch Relief Alliance members is leading the Joint Response, contracting local NGOs and leading the other international NGOs. In the case of co-leadership, the international NGO is leading together with a local organisation. This gives the local organisation the opportunity to understand the processes at a higher level and obtain a broader view. This is taking shape now in South Sudan. We will try to learn from that experience and see whether it is possible to replicate it to all of the Joint Responses.”

Where do you see this partnership going?
“ An important question we are currently discussing within the Dutch Relief Alliance is: at what point have we sufficiently strengthen ed our capacity to be able to access direct funding? If you’re still building capacity after twenty years of relationship I would not call that a sustainable partnership. A very large part of capacity building now is ticking boxes instead of meeting the needs of the local organisations. Most international NGOs within the alliance only bring local organisations on board because the donor requires an aspect of localisation. It is still more a transactional than a transformational relationship. One of the underlying problems is the duration of the partnerships. It is difficult to demonstrate that you have built capacity in six months or two years. So it would be useful to have partnerships of three years or longer.”

How did the alliance respond to the Local Advisory Group’s work plan?
Laughing: “Both the Board of Directors and the Local Advisory Group itself think it is very ambitious. Which is not a bad thing. The Grand Bargain is quite ambitious as well. We have to, how do you say that, shoot for the stars and land on the moon. That means: aim high, and then see what can be achieved. But there is no opposition against our work plan. The alliance has opened the door for our feedback and criticism.”

If you were in command in the Dutch Relief Alliance, what would you change?

“Then I come back to equal partnerships. Oxfam Novib is clear and keen about localisation and says that 35 per cent of the budget should be managed by local actors. But several alliance members do not comply with this and as a consequence, some local actors do not have access to the budget at all. It is key for me that every local organisation has access
to 35 per cent of the budget. The Local Advisory Group is working on this. In Somalia for example, the Local Advisory Group representative and the Joint Response coordinator are planning a Partnership Health Check in which local partners can give feedback on the state of their partnerships.”

Is this a difficult thing to change?
“In an alliance, you can’t enforce this. You can only encourage and inspire the members to move the needle at the same pace.”

Are you positive about the Grand Bargain? Did it yield what it promised?
“The intentions are in the right place. But when it comes to realisation we still have a long way to go. Take for example the funding policies of the different donors. Many countries within the EU are signatories to the Grand Bargain. But the EU humanitarian organisation, ECHO, allows only 60,000 euro to be directly funded to local actors. I don’t expect that they change this overnight to suit the Grand Bargain. That will take a lot of time.”

Can you mention a result or positive development caused by the Grand Bargain?
Sighing: “Nothing comes to my mind. In Somalia for example, the landscape hasn’t changed much after the Grand Bargain.”

What are the biggest obstacles for the Grand Bargain to be a success?
“The policies of the UN and the EU. When the funding policies were developed, there was not much thought about the role of local actors. The biggest challenge is to change these policies.”

Do you consider the lack of measurable localisation indicators, like the number of local staff in senior management of international NGO offices, a major problem?
“Yes and no. Yes if it translates to what is actually happening on the ground. No if it is only about reporting and checking boxes. A lot depends on who is deciding about the indicators. It is only helpful and useful if their development is participatory and if they are designed with the aim of transforming.”

How far are we from the total transformation of the humanitarian system?
“Wow, that’s a multi-faceted question. We must be realistic about what we can achieve. Maybe our groundwork will only bear fruit in twenty or thirty years. But that’s okay, because it’s not only about the result but also about the journey. I think we’re laying the foundation now and we can see some building blocks, but I don’t think the whole building will be
there in the foreseeable future.”

Can the Local Advisory Group play an important role when it comes to this?
“Yes. We can help to solve the huge information gap between the donors and the local actors. It enables them to hold the international NGOs within the alliance accountable. They can say, for example: look, we’re entitled to a 6 per cent cost sharing minimum but you’re only giving us 4 per cent! The Local Advisory Group prevents the alliance from having
conversations only on the The Hague level, without involving the local partners. Doing this, it gives credibility to the Dutch Relief Alliance policy and it can even change its direction.”

Should it be possible for local parties to be a member of the alliance?
“That is our dream. It would be a next step, after capacity strengthening. It will differ from local partner to local partner how much time it will take to take that step. But my organisation is ready for it, we have the systems in place.”

Where does the Dutch Relief Alliance stand when it comes to the Grand Bargain?

“The alliance is a frontrunner. Localisation is at the heart of what the alliance is doing. It is demonstrated in many ways, among them quality funding and flexible funding. Part of the funding of my organisation, for example, is unearmarked. When something unexpected happens, we can decide ourselves how to respond. We need to see more of that. The
recognition that we also have indirect costs, like system development and insurances, is another strong point of the alliance. Other donors can learn from the alliance with regard to this.”

What’s the most important step the alliance has taken since the Grand Bargain?
“The introduction of quality funding. The Dutch Relief Alliance has laid the groundwork for the Grand Bargain commitment of 25 per cent direct funding.”

What do you consider the most valuable asset on the ground of quality funding?
“The unearmarked funding. In the past, you could not make adjustments in the event of a crisis. It takes months to access funds, by which time the situation would have deteriorated or there would have been no need for funding anymore. Unearmarked funding demonstrates confidence in the ability of local organisations to make decisions about the needs and actions on the ground.”

To know more about the Dutch Relief Alliance and the Grand Bargain Commitments, read our yearly Grand Bargain update: Beyond 2.0: Dutch Relief Alliance and the Grand Bargain Commitments


About the Local Advisory Group

Shahida chairs the Local Advisory Group. Local NGOs participating in the Joint Responses provide the members of the Local Advisory Group. Initially, the Local Advisory Group was a rather voluntary body within the Dutch Relief Alliance, but it was given independent status in 2022. Since its inaugural meeting in November 2022 the Local Advisory Group forms a permanent part of the participation structures of the Dutch Relief Alliance. One of the main topics it treats is localisation. That’s a subject Shahida is well acquainted with, also on the local level.

She tells, enthusiastically: “We are really pushing for the localisation agenda in Somalia. Within the Somalia NGO Consortium we have a localisation working group which urges INGOs and the UN to put their money where their mouths are. Currently, 65 per cent of the pooled funding through the Somalia Humanitarian Fund (a multi-donor mechanism created to allocate funding for the most urgent interventions, managed by UN OCHA, ed.) goes to local organisations. That is a big step towards localisation.

But we want more organisations to have access to the funds. Access is based on capacity, but the parameters differ per donor. One could meet Oxfam’s criteria, for example, but fail for UN OCHA’s. To address this, the localisation working group of the Somalia NGO Consortium came up with a harmonised capacity assessment tool, based on common key areas. We are now inviting donors to use this tool.”