Localization – according to whom? by Roanne van Voorst

About the author:
marijnzonderglimRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher of humanitarian aid and disaster, at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. On 30 November 2017, she is participating in a IFRC-hosted workshop in Geneva, organized in the context of the Grand Bargain Localization Workstream.


The Grand Bargain aims to make aid more effective and efficient through a series of changes in the working practices of donors and aid organizations – localization is one of the most important themes. Evaluations should pay particular attention to experiences from Southern aid actors, as a recent study shows that they differ consistently from their Northern colleagues – and are not always taken into account.


Localization’ seems to have been a buzzword in the humanitarian aid-world for such a long time, that one could be tempted to think it would have become old news by now. Unfortunately, the opposite seems true: localization continues to draw consistent attention from policy makers and aid practitioners alike, because the humanitarian aid world is still considered unequal, with a small group of INGOs holding by far most of the means and power in the aid and development world.

The 2015/6-Grand Bargain commitments aim to change that. Signatories to the Grand Bargain have expressed that localization is crucial to make aid more effective and efficient. They committed to increase investment in the capacities and operations of national and local responders and to construct more equal partnerships between international and local actors. While similar ambitions have been voiced in the past, a number of barriers have stood in the way and best practice have not always been apparent. Both in the lead up to the Grand Bargain and particularly after its signature, a number of organizations have begun or planned research projects to fully investigate these barriers and opportunities and provide an evidence base for real change in the sector.

I urge these organizations to pay particular attention to the voices and experiences from Southern aid actors, as a recent study that I undertook with Dorothea Hilhorst indicates that there exists a huge, consistent difference in the ways Northern, larger INGO employees and practitioners working for Southern, local NGOs regard the status quo in the sector. Although this ‘gap’ is by no means a new topic, a relevant contribution to this debate is the consistent difference in perceptions that we found between aid actors working for larger INGOs and local NGOs working in areas characterized by conflict and disaster. This differentiated experience pertained especially to the ways in which the localization agenda is working in practice, particularly with regard to the issues of subcontracting versus partnerships, and the extent to which local practitioners trust the outcomes of international policy meetings.

The study we conducted is part of a large research project on humanitarian aid in settings of conflict and disaster. It included multiple rounds of in-depth interviews with an expert panel, in which 30 key humanitarian actors with great experience in the field participated. Participants remained anonymous – only the researchers knew who were interviewed. 10 out of 30 participants originated from the South and worked for a local aid organization. Another three panelists also have a Southern background yet work for an INGO. All 13 strongly differed in opinion with panelists with a Northern background on the following themes: the extent to which the localization agenda is being implemented, particularly with respect to equality in cooperation; trust in international policy processes; and the extent to which further integration between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ aid actors (new donor governments and the private sector) should be an objective. Of course, the relatively low number of participants in this study makes it impossible to draw broad conclusions on any of these themes. Nevertheless, our finding tentatively suggests that research or policy decisions in which only ‘Northern’ voices are heard tell a limited part of the story – and this could give evaluations of localization practices, a skewed outcome.

Some brief examples of North/South differences can help to give an impression: According to the majority of panelists with a Northern background, localization has been a struggle so far, but there is already more and more cooperation between local NGOs and INGOs and partnerships are slowly but gradually becoming the norm. However, panelists with a Southern background say that while there exists a lot of new types of cooperation between their agencies and Northern NGOs, these are hardly ever equal partnerships. From Lebanon to Afghanistan to Liberia to South Sudan, we heard of case studies where local NGOs are being subcontracted by INGOs to carry out projects for them, but don’t get ownership of these projects. They find they have little to say in these projects and therefore there is hardly room for local innovation.

Similarly, practitioners with a Southern background pointed out that the concept ‘humanitarian aid’ itself is a Northern concept, which they often only use in communication with international ‘partners’, as this is the only way to get subcontracts or funding. In their daily work and in communication with local aid actors, they prefer to avoid the term and instead speak of partnerships and development, as these concepts resonate more in the local context.

Finally, while Northern practitioners almost always sounded optimistic when they spoke about policy agreements such as the Grand Bargain, Southern practitioners seemed to have lost trust in these and other policy outcomes. Because of the disappointment with outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and other commitments, local Southern NGOs are currently establishing and working through interest groups and consortia to pursue their own agenda. In some cases, these prove successful in pulling more power and funding opportunities towards local aid organizations.

These examples suggest that any research about localization that does not pay particular attention to the experiences of Southern aid actors, runs the risk of sketching an image of localization that is much more optimistic than real. If we ever want to turn the buzzword of localization, into actual practice – Southern voices will have to receive much more attention in research efforts.


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