From localising the international system to actually supporting locally-led action

09 October 2023
Women in a Nepali village plastering the bamboo walls with mud during the construction of their transitional homes after the 2015 earthquake.

In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and severe lockdowns, migrant workers in Indian cities were forced to walk back to their villages. There was no way to earn a living. When the second wave hit, any savings had been exhausted. Based on inputs from the marginalised communities where they work, a national faith-based organisation devised a cash-for-work programme as part of their COVID-19 second phase response. Projects were intended to benefit the village and were determined by the families in each hamlet themselves, with the NGO facilitating the required government support and permissions. Daily wage rates were set slightly higher than the government’s welfare scheme (which was suspended at the time). No two project areas had the same activities, which meant that the finer nuance got lost in the aggregation for reporting. But the buy-in of the communities was high. For instance, the revival of a stream that only the elders in that Madya Pradesh village knew had once existed.


In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, an Indian national NGO got special permission from the Indian government to facilitate response operations across the worst affected areas. Shelter was a huge concern for affected families. Given that official rebuilding initiatives would take years, they recognised that tents alone were not a sustainable option. Instead, a highly-engineered transitional shelter design was broken down into easy-to-use manuals that could be used by the homeowners themselves. The transitional shelter was designed with the community to be appropriate and quick to build. It used locally available materials, and felt like a home. In every village, teams of homeowners came together to help build each other’s houses, supported by bamboo masons. Homeowners from one village became master trainers in the next. Technical support was provided by the NGO and logistics support by a large Nepali business group.


In an anecdote about a humanitarian innovation process, a group of practitioners in Guatemala clearly showed that their ethos differed from the convention of human-centred design. ‘People aren’t the centre for us,’ one of the participants commented. Their innovation projects are being built based on indigenous knowledge and Mayan cosmovision.


The granular insights from these examples remain at an anecdotal level, and are rarely discussed, documented or gain visibility globally. Yet, because I’d been involved with or heard about these firsthand, they were on my mind when I began investigating locally-led action for ALNAP’s new scoping study. I wanted to understand how, if at all, locally-led action differs from the way localisation is understood and practised by the formal international humanitarian system.

The term ‘localisation’ in its current form has largely been associated with the Grand Bargain commitments. In our scoping study, localisation was perceived by key informants across the sector as a more top-down approach, a narrow but crucial attempt to push changes within the formal humanitarian sector.

At the heart of these international discussions has been a question about increasingly scarce resources, and who receives them. The Grand Bargain commitment was to get 25% of total international humanitarian funding as directly as possible to local and national actors. This goal is far from being met. Direct funding to local organisations reached a high of 3% during the COVID-19 crisis and then dropped back to 1.2% in 2021 and 2022. The State of the Humanitarian System report 2022 also found that 40% of international humanitarian funding in 2021 went to five countries, and there was wide disparity between the best and worst funded appeals.

Recently, there has been a push to break down and broaden this funding-centric thinking with Global South-led initiatives such as the Pledge for Change and the broader #ShiftThePower advocacy movement.

In other words, the majority of the emergencies around the world receive extremely limited international humanitarian assistance. But while localisation is moving very slowly, action on the ground, led by national and local organisations and communities themselves, is happening regardless.

The ideas that underpin locally-led action are not new. Affected families themselves and their neighbours are the first responders in every crisis, followed by the surrounding community. This truth is gaining visibility and relevance within the formal humanitarian sector for a variety of reasons. The first is the growing discussion around the commitment to localisation. The second is the question of accountability to those being assisted, and the gap that persists between what is needed and what is provided. The third is that, in some circumstances, international agencies are simply unable to access or work in affected areas. COVID-19 shutdowns provided some examples of this, but it is also currently true in parts of Sudan, Myanmar and Northern Syria.

Despite these realities, the majority of those at the forefront of humanitarian response today are still treated as sub-contractors, while absorbing most of the risk.

Truly supporting locally-led action means beginning with the existing strengths of that particular crisis-affected ecosystem. This becomes the starting point for designing and executing programmes in a much more meaningful way. At the heart is decision-making power: the opportunity for those closest to the affected communities to have control over how resources are used, how programmes are designed and who is involved. This is not necessarily guaranteed by the transfer of financial resources alone. It requires a level of trust, and a change in mindset, that seems to still elude the majority of organisations.

As seen in the opening examples of this blog, the need to trust, change mindsets and shift decision-making is applicable to organisations and practitioners across the humanitarian sector, including at the national and local level. It becomes a way of getting closer and closer to having affected people and households themselves make decisions. The Center for Disaster Preparedness, a national organisation in the Philippines, for example, has established a community solidarity fund to help build the movement of community-led actions and community philanthropy.

At the farthest end of this spectrum is finding ways to support mutual aid: spontaneous, informal support that springs up in the wake of a crisis, from setting up a community kitchen to the local pharmacist serving as a de facto doctor. This approach of microgrants supporting mutual aid initiatives is now being used in methodologies such as survivor and community led response (sclr).

Such locally-led and mutual aid approaches have been able to cut across development and humanitarian silos (what is coined as the ‘nexus’), contribute to risk reduction and sustainability, and on a more emotional level – revive hope.

Amid continuing efforts to bring reforms to the formal humanitarian system, such as UNOCHA’s Flagship initiative, can we also learn from and support existing truly locally-led initiatives?

ALNAP’s upcoming scoping report, ‘Learning to be more locally led’, will be out in November looking at the current practice and evidence gaps in the international humanitarian system in more detail.

You can also read our series of blogs about localisation by Arbie Baguios here.