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Bold action on the path towards localisation

19 August 2019 Susana Klien Bold action on the path towards localisation

On World Humanitarian Day, Saferworld’s Director of International Programmes, Susana Klien, looks at what it means to embark on bold reform of the humanitarian system, and explores how power can be shifted to those affected by conflict and crisis.  

One of my favourite Paulo Freire’s quotes says that “the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Freire influenced generations of people like me in Latin America and elsewhere, shaping movements for social change and liberation struggles alike. When I think about the current crisis facing the humanitarian aid system, the struggles that international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and local organisations have to navigate in complex environments, and efforts to ‘localise’ aid and shift the power from remote donor capitals and INGO headquarters to conflict-affected people and the organisations that represent them, this quote comes always to my mind.

Many before me have argued that international aid system has to change.  These arguments are not new, nor has action been lacking. On the contrary, anyone who has been in the aid sector for more than five years can attest to the fact that we seem to be endlessly restructuring and reforming, centralising and decentralising, expanding and contracting our operations around the world. But are the voices of people living in conflict or crisis-affected places leading or even shaping these reforms?

The ‘localisation agenda’ launched at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit built consensus around the idea that the humanitarian aid system needs reform, and that power and resources need to be shifted to the hands of people affected by conflict and crisis. While there has been a lot of rhetoric (with very interesting and heated debates, articles, posts, analysis on this), there has been little ‘radical enough’ action or progress against important indicators of change.

Many reasons have been given for this slow progress: for example, the deep structural changes needed will challenge the power of INGOs and donors, our assumptions and our own roles and perhaps in some cases even our existence in the aid system. Some of us have become technocrats in the aid industry, assuming that ‘solutions’ can be applied without engaging with systems of power, without recognition that aid is political, and without acknowledging that aid responds to problems that have root causes and solutions that are also political. Most of the time, shifting power means shifting decision making and resources away ‘from us’. Obviously this is not simple –but it is critical and it is not happening fast enough.

When it comes to discussions about shifting resources and decision making to local organisations, I have been told that we cannot ‘idealise’ civil society, local organisations and communities. It is true that there are struggles with exclusions, marginalisation, patriarchal norms and patronage, amongst others. But these problems are not exclusive to civil society in conflict-affected situations. We in INGO and donor communities grapple with them too, but this has not limited our hold and exercise of power.

We spend a lot of time discussing the external factors limiting our work and already know that the aid system and donor attitudes are not necessarily conducive to adaptation, flexibility, lesson learning or building more horizontal relations with local organisations. But we are less eager to reflect on or talk about (at least openly) the learnt behaviours and institutional norms and practices that hold us back from the critical (or ‘radical’, as Freire would say) changes we should be taking.

We have been influenced by ‘the system’ for so many years that we actually need to unlearn a lot of what we have learnt about what it means to be an ‘aid worker’. To do this, we need to shakeup the system from within. Strong political leadership and commitment from the top is required. We need to move away from a model in which leaders measure their success based on how much the organisation has grown under their leadership or how many more ‘beneficiaries’ the organisation has reached. Instead, they should make decisions that actually shift power inside their organisations and in the work of their organisations. They will need to accept that some of their choices will be deeply unpopular, at least for a while, and that some of these decisions will mean fewer resources being allocated to the ‘things we used to do’ or the areas ‘we know best’ or ‘are best known for’.  The time to ‘let it go’ has surely arrived.

Reform will look different for different organisations. For some, certain programmes or country offices will need to be closed, and shrinking (budget-wise) will be essential. Redesigning how we work in partnership with local and national civil society will be crucial. More effective, respectful and equitable partnerships between civil society and INGOs, where parties agree on the rules of engagement and have an honest appraisal of what each can bring to the table, are long overdue.

How we work together is fundamental. Although a lot of people talk about ‘partnerships’ as a way of working with local organisations, there is less effort in ensuring they are truly linked to values of shared power and influence, solidarity and mutual accountability. There are fewer partnerships with accompaniment as a critical component. That sense of walking together, long-term commitment, strong solidarity and trust, and being a critical friend rarely seems to be mainstream practice. Instead, we talk about contracts, terms and conditions, compliance, checks, and risks.

Change will depend on honestly addressing difficult questions: what is our role, and what should it be in a rapidly changing world with evolving capacities everywhere? Are we still relevant and do we add value? Or is it time to ‘pass the mic’?  How long can we claim we speak on behalf of others who ‘can’t be’ at the table? 

All of this is far from simple, of course. It involves looking at the organisation as a whole and revisiting approaches in all areas of our work to unpick the blockages that hold back change. At Saferworld we have taken some important initial steps related to partnerships and learning, but we know it is a challenging journey that will take time. As we look to our next long-term planning period, all these questions will be at the top of our agenda. Sharing our experiences and learning from others on the same path towards radical localisation will help us navigate the challenging road ahead.    

Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr