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Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

The localisation agenda, which aims to localise funds and responsibilities to local actors in humanitarian responses, retains an ambiguous concept of ‘the local’. The inclusion of power relations at multiple local governance levels in the localisation debate is needed for a more realistic approach to locally led responses to disasters, argues Samantha Melis.

The localisation debate in humanitarian aid is not new, but it has regained momentum after the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and the thereupon following Grand Bargain, where the commitment to direct more resources and responsibilities to local actors was a key element. However, both ‘the local’ and the action of localisation are more complex than what the policies might suggest. It is important to better understand who the local actors are and how a more locally led response is negotiated by all actors involved.

Horizontal and vertical perspectives of the local  

While the localisation agenda focuses mainly on the direction of funds and the building of local capacity, others have also emphasised the need to shift power to local actors. Granted, all these are important for changes to a system that is still mostly top-down and often excludes the voices of the local actors. However, for a more realistic view of the complexities that underly the localisation debate, the perspective of the local and the definition of what localisation means in practice needs to be further researched and contextualised.

The definition of ‘the local’ remains obscure and needs to go beyond local NGO partners. After a disaster, many different types of local responders are involved. Some might have a presence before, but others will be new and temporary, such as certain public and private sector groups, religious institutions, and other individual philanthropists. Also, in each case, civil society, and their role, will be different. Therefore, ‘the local’ varies depending on the context. Within a particular setting, these can be defined as the horizontal locals.

Localisation is usually discussed from a top-down, outsider perspective, with international actors focusing on the locality of the actors that are closer to the disaster and yet not integrated (sufficiently) of the ‘insider group’ of the international community. From a bottom-up perspective, some actors that would be considered local by the international community, such as the national government, are not always considered local by the communities. This often depends on whether they are seen as ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ their group boundaries. These are the top-down and bottom-up vertical locals.

Not one localised response, but multi-local governance

In my research on disaster response in post-conflict countries, this has direct implications for localisation. Localisation is, to a large extent, about resources and power relations, not only between the international and national, but also between different local actors on multiple levels of local governance. If the local governance levels are disconnected, or tensions exist between the horizontal and vertical locals, then localisation becomes even more challenging. These are obstacles that can only be overcome when horizontal and vertical locals are included in the debate and the relations between multiple local governance levels are better understood.

Opening up the conversation

The debate on localisation will benefit from a more layered approach, wherein the local is not only seen as one entity or as detached from the local and international perspective. Studying practical examples of locally led responses will contribute to more realistic and context-appropriate changes in current top-down humanitarian approaches. The concept of ‘the local’ and ‘localisation’ are not as clear cut as they seem to be, and adding depth to the debate opens up more questions that need answers, and continues the conversation in a more inclusive manner.

About the authors:

samanthaSamantha Melis (The Netherlands) is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, of Erasmus University (EUR). She is currently involved in the project “When disasters meet conflict”, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Within this project, she focuses on the response to disasters in post-conflict scenarios.