Locally owned disaster response – “It is all about power and taking back the power”

Participants at the CHS and Localisation Workshop in Auckland, May 2017

Bethany Hender

19 Jun, 2017

At the World Humanitarian Summit just over one year ago, 30 of the biggest donors and humanitarian organisations agreed to the Grand Bargain, a set of 52 commitments aimed at making humanitarian funding more efficient and effective, to better serve people in need.

The Grand Bargain commitments are categorised into ten work streams, ranging from increasing transparency and simplifying reporting, to a ‘participation revolution’.  Arguably the most talked about part of the Grand Bargain is the localisation commitment, which calls for 25 per cent of humanitarian funding to go as directly as possible to local and national responders by 2020.  There has been much discussion internationally regarding the definition of ‘local and national responders’ (for example, can these ‘local’ organisations be affiliated with international NGOs?) and what is meant by the words ‘as directly as possible’.

Last month, on the anniversary of the Grand Bargain agreement, ACFID and its sister organisations in the Pacific (PIANGO) and New Zealand (CID), brought together 40 humanitarian actors from nine countries in the Pacific to discuss what localisation means for the Pacific and how different actors can progress the agenda. The workshop was attended by humanitarian actors from Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Australia.

While many of the localisation discussions in Australia and at the international level have focused on funding percentages, the conversations at the workshop in Auckland focused on power. The word ‘power’ was used repeatedly to describe the localisation process, with descriptions of localisation including: ‘locally led decision making’; ‘hand over the power and leadership roles to local actors’; ‘handing back the power’; ‘empowering local capacity’; and ‘leadership and decision making is locally owned and localised’. When asked what localisation meant to them, a group of civil society representatives from PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu said: “Locally owned disaster response – It is all about power and taking back the power”.

Descriptions of ‘localisation’ from participants at the Regional Localisation Workshop in Auckland, May 2017

International actors have for several decades taken over leadership of humanitarian responses to disasters in the Pacific – flying in with technical expertise, structures, and processes. However, they are rarely the first responders – it is the people living in a community that respond first to disasters and who were previously the only responders when disasters hit. Humanitarian response does not belong to international humanitarian agencies. Australian NGOs are starting to better acknowledge existing structures and disaster response coordination mechanisms and work in support of, rather than on top of or in substitute of, local organisations, government, and structures.

Participants in the workshop in Auckland identified concrete actions that could be taken to further the localisation of humanitarian responses to crises in the Pacific. Participants suggested that donors could integrate humanitarian response flexibility into development projects and include a mechanism to reallocate any unspent humanitarian funding at the end of the financial year or project timeframe. Participants also asked donors to encourage their partners to participate in existing national coordination structures (such as National Disaster Management Offices). Recommendations for Australian and New Zealand NGOs included: supporting national leadership through coordination and umbrella bodies; support partners under local partners’ direction; shift resources to local partners; and provide capacity building for local NGOs in humanitarian response.

Another significant recommendation was the idea of Pacific civil society developing a standard for local and national NGOs in their own countries. The purpose of such a standard would be to set, and evidence, a standard of program quality and accountability. The standard would be similar to ACFID’s Code of Conduct, but developed by Pacific Island Countries, for Pacific Island Countries. The standard would need to be locally relevant and avoid the trap of becoming a re-statement of the same, complex, and administratively heavy compliance regimes that are required of INGOs by their donors.

These practical recommendations will drive and inform ACFID’s future work on the localisation agenda. After all, if we want to be good partners to people experiencing crisis, we cannot, and should not, shy away from discussions of power. Technical fixes to the humanitarian system, with no reflection on power—who has it, who needs it, and how do we better spread it—will not deliver reforms adequate to the scale of the humanitarian challenges we face today.

*Tomorrow, Tuesday 20 June 2017, the first annual meeting of the Grand Bargain signatories will take place in Geneva to assess progress made in advancing the Grand Bargain commitments, one year on.


Link to full Grand Bargain document here.




  • Bethany Hender
    Bethany Hender

    Bethany Hender is the Humanitarian and Human Rights Advisor at the Australian Council for International Development. Bethany co-ordinates ACFID’s Humanitarian Reference Group, which is a mechanism for Australian agencies working in emergency relief and humanitarian assistance to share information, strengthen coordination, and engage in policy dialogue and advocacy to strengthen humanitarian response. Bethany has a Master of Laws, Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours, and a Bachelor of Development Studies and is an accredited mediator.

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