They were promised a fair share of power and resources… so why are local humanitarian actors still waiting?

lydia Zigomo Aid, Humanitarian

Activists in Uganda, advocating for rights of women and girls. They are part of Oxfam’s Empowering Local and National Actors Programme to boost the role of local actors in humanitarian aid
Photo Credits: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam America

In May 2016, at the first-ever  World Humanitarian Summit, world leaders, humanitarian actors and the UN pledged to share power and resources with the local, front-line organisations who are critical to saving lives in humanitarian crises.

Five years later, have they delivered on their commitments? The answer, unambiguously, is no.

The Istanbul summit promised to “empower national and local humanitarian action”, recognizing that local actors deserve space at the decision-making tables and access to financial resources. Yet, the international humanitarian aid system today is still governed by a highly centralized and exclusive group of actors located in the global north: a small number of government donors control more than two thirds of the funds channelled through the formal aid system. UN agencies receive the bulk of that funding, followed by international aid organisations.

In 2020, direct funding for local and national humanitarian actors stood at only 3.1 % of total international humanitarian assistance.

This reality is increasingly being questioned by the local and national actors themselves. Ever more leaders of local and national organizations are calling for true local leadership. The current system is being criticized as “modern-day colonialism”. The “Alliance for Empowering Partnerships”, composed of local and national organizations from across the so-called “global South” state that “local actors remain the most under-represented group in the humanitarian system”.

Neglect of local and community organisations

As a professional in the development sector for the past 25 years, I had the opportunity to look at this system from different angles. Starting in Zimbabwe, my country of origin, it was common to host well meaning “capacity building visits” from international NGOs from the West. The majority of funding went to a handful of “respected national organisations,” (one of which was my own), while the majority of local and community-based organisations who actually work with communities at the grassroots, were considered too much of a risk to invest in and work with. My organization was actually a partner of Oxfam at the time.

Later on, I moved to the United Kingdom – and was suddenly on the other side of the international aid sector, seeing, among others, experienced white colleagues questioning the appointment of national African directors, based on sentiments that they cannot be trusted, and are less capable than expatriate country directors.

In my time in Kenya, in a regional director role, I was concerned to see how very few national or regional African-led organisations would be in humanitarian coordination meetings. It begs the question of how much we instrumentalise partners in our work, as a means to an end of delivering on our goals, rather than (equal) partnership being the goal in itself. 

There is no doubt: This needs to change. And Oxfam must be part of this change; more so: We want to be among the international organizations leading this change. The question is not whether the power balance in the international aid system will change or not. The question is how long this will take. We want to be among those accelerating this transformation.

Signs of progress

There is some progress: For the first time, local and national  CSOs  are directly involved in an important international humanitarian process: the Grand Bargain 2.0, which brings together key actors in the humanitarian system in an attempt to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action.

And there are promising initiatives of local actors building networks with the aim to shape and lead humanitarian responses of civil society in their countries such as the ASAL Humanitarian Network in Kenya or the Nexus Platform in Somalia, founded by nine Somali NGOs.

In 2016 Oxfam initiated the ‘Empowering Local and National Actors Program’ (ELNHA) aiming to enhance the strength, voice and space of local civil society actors in Bangladesh and Uganda. One pillar of the ELNHA was to pilot funding models that promote the independence and leadership of local actors in preparedness and response. One successful example has been the Humanitarian Response Grant Facility (HRGF), which is activated when a humanitarian emergency is flagged. The funding is only accessible by local actors and is awarded based on their self-designed proposals. Having met some of these actors from this initiative in Uganda on my travels, I can attest to its achievements and impact.

Such initiatives, which need to be scaled up globally, lead the way into a more equal future, trying to overcome the current imbalances in the development and humanitarian sector which far too often perpetuate our colonial past. Oxfam is committed to supporting them in ways we are requested to support. Our role as intermediary, broker and enabler will differ from context to context, but will aim to empower local civil society actors to drive, define, and deliver humanitarian responses relevant to the needs in their communities.

Confronting the legacy of colonialism

But these examples are a drop in the ocean against a backdrop of an overall aid system that continues to work in the traditional ways, steeped in its colonial histories and economic models that perpetuate inequalities – including even in Oxfam itself. To reach scale, the commitment made in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit by 9,000 participants – including 55 heads of state and government – to empower local and national actors should be renewed and strengthened. This can only work if we are ready to change. That includes being ready to let go of power and resources, and deliberately make the choice to direct these into the hands of local actors who are in a position to respond to a humanitarian crisis.

About the Author:

Lydia Zigomo is Oxfam International’s Global Programme Director, overseeing seven regions across the world and over 70 countries where Oxfam has a presence and programmes with partners. She is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe with 25 years’ experience in international development across a number of INGOs and national organisations.