The Localization Surge

MSF used to run an ad: “The world is our emergency room.”  Snappy, no?  Raises an eyebrow or two if wiped over a photograph, say, of dusty civilians shouldering a wounded neighbour, or starving children swallowed by their swaddling.   It also raises an important challenge to the implementation of the “localization” agenda.  By definition, responding to crisis – to extraordinary levels of need – requires some form of surge, a capacity to scale up aid operations in response to crisis.  The UN- and Western NGO-led humanitarian system already struggles in this regard (see, e.g., MSF’s “Where is Everyone”). Local organizations might struggle further. In how many nations could even the combined NGO community open and maintain 19 surgical theatres, as MSF did within weeks of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or mount 53 million Euros of operations in about 4.5 months?

The general view seems to be that local organizations can surge, but to a lesser degree.  As Schenkenberg’s study explains, local NGOs often have a very limited ability to scale up. He goes on to describe the causes, such as difficulties in attracting/receiving funds or the unhelpful reality that in an emergency, newly arriving international agencies will often Hoover up staff from the local NGOs. Management capacity for rapid growth poses another stumbling block. While the World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain and the general strengthening of local NGOs may address some of these issues, they do little to address constraints in the model itself.

Within most Western societies the response to crisis rests upon our fortune, upon the wealth necessary to pay armies of soldiers or battalions of firefighters to sit on their ass – dead capacity that comes to life when the siren sounds. The aid sector can ill afford this model (although they increasingly pay armies of people to do little more than sit on their asses, that is a different blog).  Essentially, surge capacity in the major international NGOs exists because the world is their emergency room, meaning they are able to maintain surge capacity by distributing it globally, and then redistributing it when an emergency arises.

I suppose this marks an economy of scale. That same model works poorly on a national or provincial scale. There may be exceptions – Eastern DRC? South Sudan? – that could support such excess resources, but it is difficult to imagine many.  Note that this economy of the global scale plays a similar role when it comes to expertise.  Major international agencies can maintain in-house expertise along a wide variety of themes – nutrition, shelter, water, sanitation, etc. – because at the global level, there will always be enough business somewhere to keep such expertise busy (to justify the expenditure). Again, national NGOs do not have this economy of scale (or simultaneous diversity of crisis types/themes).

The point is that local NGOs cannot be expected to become local versions of the large international NGOs. No duh, right? And yet the bigger point is that they will nonetheless be judged for it. Rather mercilessly, I fear. They will be judged as deficient because they cannot surge. Deficient because they lack sufficient in-house expertise.  Let’s be clear. These are exactly the sort of weaknesses that the existing system will capitalize upon to claw back its pre-Grand Bargain dominion. Beyond the issue of power and control, these perceived deficiencies generate a truth in which local responders remain dependent on the existing international system for surge, one more nail in the coffin of second-class citizenship.

If we start now, can we work our way out of this?  Can we can imagine some form of standing capacity at the national level? Perhaps we should be investing now in developing/testing a number of approaches to national-level rapid response mobilization. Let’s embrace strategies based on dispersed teams/networks rather than centralized agencies. Perhaps we can imagine local chapters of an organization such as Human Surge? Or maybe we can just begin a conversation, and see where it leads.

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