Be Careful What You Ask For

The discussion of localization is beginning to deepen. Here (summarized) is an opening salvo from Charles Lwanga-Ntale, director of the Kenya Academy Centre:  localization often seems to resemble ‘deconcentration’, a process whereby the systems and structures of the existing humanitarian sector are exported downwards.  Certainly an interesting reflection to lead off a conference entitled “Localization and Contextualization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) in East Africa”. Hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and the (Kenyan) National Drought Management Authority, the conference mixed government, NGO and academic communities, and placed a particular focus on regional examples of DRRM at the sub-national level, where counties and districts struggle directly with fires, landslides, refugees and drought.

True enough – localization can be many things to many people. Yet the warning on replication was eclipsed as quickly as it was issued. Localization has momentum and it has an engine – from diverse voices a rather uniform set of calls for more capacity building. A palpable hunger for knowledge and learning peppered our two days of discussions. A desire not only for the processes, tools and know-how of the humanitarian sector but also a deep conviction in the power of capacity building to change the behaviour of communities and people.  Have the past five decades of capacity building not curbed our appetite?

I’m not advocating that the global south build a wall (although that argument holds surprising merit), but something needs to keep all these consultants, UN careerists and INGOs busy.  The call seems to aim at training from the very INGOs and agencies that shaped local NGOs into mere implementing partners, and undermined their capacity as autonomous civil society actors. Beyond that, the headlong rush into capacity building raises Trojan Horse concerns. What comes with the sector rebuilding its systems, as Lwanga-Ntale phrased it, “further down the road”?

This much is true. The core of the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies and INGOs elsewhere referred to by many (e.g., me) as an “oligopoly” or “cartel” – has developed an immense amount of experience, know-how and (sadly less publicised) comprehension of what doesn’t work. At the same time, my less optimistic appraisal is that very little about humanitarian action warrants the dash towards replication. It’s not like we are passing on a bandolier full of silver bullets. And that is the good stuff.  What about the bad stuff, which often comes along with the good stuff? Or the bad stuff that we mistakenly think is good stuff?

Take for example the seemingly innocuous technology of the logical framework.  Or the constitution of a humanitarian action upon the foundation of projects. These are exactly the sort of capacity building initiatives the system loves to export. Yet aside from their bureaucratic appeal, they come riddled with proven deficiencies: reducing humanitarian work to tick-box processes and quantifiable targets, output without outcome, short-termism, top-downism, risk aversion, fear of failure, etc.  In the end, a sector full of successful’ projects that leave behind such staggering unmet needs that we needed a Grand Bargain full of transformative ambitions.  Local actors using contextualized logframes? Is that really as far as our ambition travels?

I note that those at the forefront of development thinking (and even a few donors) have embraced the need for Doing Development Differently, exactly by unlogframing it. As agencies scramble to maintain relevance and contracts by delivering capacity building, are we replicating an obsolete and ineffective technology simply because it is so ingrained in our thinking; in how we practice aid?  Isn’t that one of the problems we hope localization and contextualization will solve?

Even beyond the issue of effectiveness, here’s question getting too much focus: What value do does the system want or expect the north to transfer to the south?  Opportunity cost asks a second question: Does that value outweigh a flood of workshops and ‘best practices’ that will bury the south’s opportunity and right to author value for itself? To author a new rather than receiving an old value?

Capacity building strikes me as expedient, but not particularly ambitious. I would think development requires more of localization and contextualization. First and foremost, the space for local actors to respond to problems in their way, and to struggle in the creative process at the same time.  This involves going through frustrations and failures in proximity to communities, to arrive at successes through effort, invention and ownership, not effort, mimicry and dependence. This also involves less of an employment scheme for the existing aristocracy.

Crucially, it is through this struggle that NGOs in the north have built not only their practices, but their institutions as well.  It may be a crap slogan for fast food, but Burger King gets it right, as does Zen Buddhism.  Be your way. Endpoints are less important than pathways. For example, what is the cost of local institutions not developing organically but instead having their financial plumbing supercharged by the global north just so that they can be declared eligible to receive direct grants? Why not change those eligibility standards? This is exactly the sort of mimicry that we should block; a mimicry whereby we reproduce a humanitarian system in which subservience to its business objectives evolved as the dominant structure of the agency, while the operational response to the needs of people became at best secondary, at worst a simple input to a financial transaction.

This call is not for reinventing the wheel. This call is for reinventing the imperfect devices of humanitarian action, because local organizations with a relationship to the community and deep knowledge of the context might just invent something entirely glorious.

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