The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Localization

Localization — the agenda formerly intending a shift of humanitarian power?

The Good

The one year anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit’s ‘Grand Bargain’ offers time to take stock of progress.    At a conceptual level, a key goal of the Grand Bargain is to drive the humanitarian sector towards the irrefutable good of contextualizing its work: re-imagining a humanitarian action that departs from top-down, cookie-cutter approaches and empowers programming that is borne in and is effective in meeting the needs of people within a specific context.  It will do so by shifting greater focus and cash to responders, a departure from a system based on the near monopoly of international aid conglomerates. We call this the localization agenda, even though a more neutral perspective would grasp the humanitarian system as already suffering from an over-localization (in the West).

The Bad

Let us imagine this contextualization in full bloom, a localization that moves beyond its current emphasis on the location of the funding recipient and beyond even the crucial focus on meaningful participation/involvement of local communities. To truly embody the shift in power first envisioned by the localization agenda, it should also comprise a locally-driven rethink of how to address people’s needs. How do we build the freedom for that rethink to occur? How do we avoid the seemingly unstoppable bulk transfer of managerial systems, best-practices and standardized (read: homogenized) methodologies that decontextualize humanitarian assistance in the first place?

This ongoing stampede of North-to-South ‘capacity building’ exercises risks producing globalization instead of localization, a kicking of the humanitarian can down bumpy local roads. [link] We already know the contents of this can — dozens of colourful guidelines on the same topic, neatly venned organizational processes and tick-box exercise after tick-box exercise to ensure quality control.  As the NEAR Network has declared: “Local actors have had more than 30 years of supposed capacity building and ‘partnership principles’ which has not resulted in any significant gains.”

This Trojan Horse of sectoral bureaucracy accompanies a more insidious globalization as local responders clamber for direct funding from Western donors. As I have written elsewhere, the prospect of local agencies tethering themselves to the soft power and avowedly self-interested geo-political ambitions of Western donor funding has already proven itself a debilitating experience for the Western INGO.  We must also guard against the globalizing effects of reducing localization to a donor-driven search for cheap labor, a rationale of efficiency gains by which localization reduces transaction costs by decreasing layers.

More deeply, localization must pierce the imposition of our (globalized) world view, and the universalist approach to exporting our truths, even where the underlying values may be universal in nature.  In other words, humanitarian ideals may be universal, but the architecture and processes designed to realize and defend those deals must be seen as a rather localized product of history and geography.  Let’s not confuse universal with sacred cow.

The Ugly

It has taken nine months of discussion to settle simple questions because they came burdened by complex institutional consequences: What is a local responder? What does ‘as directly as possible’ mean? To answer simply requires only an understanding of the catalyst for the localization push – the spectacular North-South power imbalance and inequitable distribution of resources within the humanitarian sector.  As it turns out, local responders were effectively shut out of owning the local response, even though often sub-contracted to deliver it. One stat summed up the embarrassing state of affairs: a mere 0.4% of international humanitarian assistance in 2015 went directly to national and local NGOs, a situation that makes global inequality look relatively tame.

The definitional debate, however, has compromised this clear intent. The accommodation of political and bureaucratic interests means that a local outpost of a billion-dollars-per-year INGO could be considered ‘local’, and that funding funnelled to local responders via the same old rent-extracting Western INGO intermediaries may count towards the Grand Bargain’s target of going 25 percent local (an issue still to be settled).

Proponents of localization take note.  Lesson 1: wealth and power are not so easily captured. Lesson 2: a logic of localization based on effectiveness and efficiency favors the status quo.

Lost in these debates over effectiveness and efficiency, lost in the scramble of trying to establish INGO standards of financial accounting in smaller, differently-developed local organizations, is any notion of localization as an ethical undertaking. The modern humanitarian sector is founded upon the principle of humanity, that a fundamental human dignity resides within each one of us.  There, we should house the right to self-determination and the ability to possess at least some degree of power over the forces affecting one’s life.

Enter the humanitarian machine at a time of crisis, wielding its monopoly power over decision-making as to who will live or die. That is an abusive power inhering in its unaccountable decisions as to who will and who will not receive aid.  That is a sovereign power being held by a non-sovereign body. It is time then for a realization that localization may or may not yield either effectiveness or efficiency, but those laudable goals should not be the standards by which it is ultimately judged. The ‘decolonization’ of humanitarian action constitutes an ethical mission, not simply a technocratic one; a transfer of power not merely from international to local agencies but from an alien civilization to a home society. Accepting such a meaningful transformation (read: loss) will not be easy for people like me. But our humanitarian action in their house? Time to admit that we haven’t exactly gotten it right, and the principle of humanity means that they should hold the power to get it wrong.

[7 July 2017.  In response to comments that the original blog misstated certain elements, changes were made to the second paragraph of The Ugly.]

3 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Localization”

  1. Brilliant article. So far, the imaginary power lies in the West because it has control over resources. However, that power base is also slipping away due to the changing economic pattern. Billion dollar INGOs are smart and quick to adapt, therefore, opening national chapters in all those countries where they see the scope to raise funding locally.

    They are doing it much more successfully than the local organisations. The status quo remains the same even when significant percentage of humanitarian funding now originates in global South. A few years down the line, we will start another process on empowerment and transformation to keep ourselves engaged.

  2. Brilliant. 100% agree with you. Keen to exchange by email or meet, and discuss what we can do to decolonize humanitarian action. I’ve worked as NGO and now work as donor so I relate to all this big time! Please be in touch!

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