Aidex Voices

Every year, we choose a conference theme for AidEx that we hope reflects the most interesting and current conversations taking place in the humanitarian and development sectors. In this sixth year of the event, we’ve opted for ‘localisation’, which I broadly define as the ongoing effort to give communities in need of aid and development assistance a more decisive role in shaping what this assistance looks like.

The need to empower local communities in the aid delivery process is clear. At the recent World Humanitarian Summit, international donors agreed to direct 25% of all humanitarian funding “as directly as possible” towards local and national agencies. This would be a significant improvement on the current 4% threshold. 27 international NGOs also agreed to a new Charter4Change, committing to passing on 20% of their funding to national NGOs by 2018. 

I think this is all a step in the right direction. But to be truly effective, localisation needs to go well beyond delivery of aid. To start with, what do we mean when we use the term ‘local’? For instance, when we’re talking about the ‘local’ population in a country which plays host to thousands of refugees (each of whom can spend up to an average of 20 years in a camp such as Dadaab or Al Zaatari), this clearly includes both the refugees and the ‘native’ population. But the two often exist in very separate spheres. The challenge then becomes, how to reconcile the needs of both community, and bring both into the decision-making process? 

And while we’re on the topic of what counts as local, there’s also a very practical issue: at what point does a long-term refugee become a local resident? It could be argued that it isn’t a matter of time or location; that a refugee remains a refugee for as long as they are dependent on external aid in a country other than their own. But how do we reconcile this with the fact that unlike other immigrants or ‘expats’, refugees rarely have the opportunity to establish themselves within the fabric of their host country or to contribute economically by working, for instance? Instead, most remain in a state of limbo; for all intents and purposes, physically in a country but not part of it.

Finally, I also think we need to take a long-hard look at the overlap between aid and development, which inevitably encompasses issues related to localisation. 

With urbanisation, climate change and mass migration increasing apace, it’s clear that home-grown solutions will be vital for strengthening resilience and supporting local economies to withstand all manner of disasters. This means giving affected communities the tools and resources to tackle challenges in the way that works best for them, rather than dictating solutions from afar. It means the international aid community looking more closely at how to procure locally, in order to support long-term economic development. And it means striking the right balance between trusting local knowledge and providing external expertise to communities in crisis. 

To me, the fact that we are having these kinds of discussions strongly suggests that today’s humanitarian system “was designed for yesterday’s problems, not tomorrow’s”, as David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, put it recently. We’ll be continuing these discussions and discussing possible solutions at AidEx, but in the meantime, let me know what you think ‘going local’ means and let’s keep the conversation going.