Beyond UN and INGOs: A sustainable humanitarian response is only possible if we involve local actors

There is growing realization that local actors in the humanitarian sector need to be empowered to effectively respond to humanitarian crises. Even though this notion of empowering local humanitarian actors is something that the international community, donors and governments quickly agree is necessary and urgent, the real problem is walking the talk and investing in local actors. With only about 0.2% of humanitarian aid channeled directly to national non-government actors (NGOs and CSOs), a total of US$46.6 million out of US$24.5 billion, the world is still a far cry from the 25% commitment under 2020 Grand Bargain.

There is no doubt that the humanitarian system, currently dominated by large international Non-Governmental Organisations and UN Agencies, has saved countless lives. However, with growing emergencies across the world, the need for aid is growing too. The population requiring aid has doubled over the last decade. Since 2011, the UN’s annual total humanitarian funding requirements have also more than doubled, from $7.4 to $16.4 Billion. The humanitarian system is getting overstretched and underfunded and is unable to meet growing humanitarian needs. The result: assistance that is often insufficient, inappropriate and late in saving lives.

Oxfam has been working with her partners and stakeholders to get more donor commitment towards funding local actors. For example, the Empowering Local and National Actors (ELNHA) 3-year project, running in Uganda and Bangladesh and funded by the IKEA Foundation (a Private Organisation), is enabling local actors to improve their capacities and increase their collective voice to advocate for their work and get involved in humanitarian response within their communities. Oxfam in Uganda, channels at least 25% of its humanitarian funding through local actors and is working to increase this to at least 30% by May 2018. This is above the Charter for Change commitments which set the target of 20%. Even then, it is not yet at 50 percent- the terrain is not yet equal. And it is equality we must strive towards.

Who are local actors?

Local actors are a vast array of people and institutions who are there when the humanitarian situation is grand and attracting international attention and remain, continuing to deal with the situation, even after the camera lights have deemed and the world has moved on to the next humanitarian crisis it deems bigger. At the centre is host communities who manage to scrape together their modest means and provide for immediate needs of people affected by crisis, in the spirit of Ubuntu.

Local actors also include Community Based Organisations (CBOs), Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Local Government Authorities, Faith Based Organisations (FBOs), Private Agencies, and Academic Institutions such as Universities and Research Organisations. When disaster strikes, local organisation spring into action to save lives. They perform first aid, prepare food, share water, and find shelter. They understand the languages, cultures, and context of the affected local communities. Yet, these actors are often ignored until the question of sustainability emerges.

Beyond lip service

With the right kind of investment, local actors can be best positioned to strengthen resilience and self-reliance for affected communities. They are critical in addressing the root cause of conflict and mitigating impacts of natural disasters and climate change. If donors mean what they say about addressing the causes and not just symptoms of humanitarian crises, then it is high time they met their commitments and channeled more resources through local actors. Africa is currently contributing least to climate change but bearing the biggest brunt of its effects. Africa is also the continent hosting most refugees. There is a moral obligation for the most powerful global actors to realise that crises are not Africa’s burden to bear alone. We are all are complicit for not challenging the world status quo, where human-made and natural disasters rob people of a dignified life, enough.

This is not to say African governments such as Uganda are off the hook for the benevolent hand they lend refugees. Are African governments and regional bodies investing enough in local humanitarian actors? Even though Uganda is applauded for its refugee-friendly policies, Local Governments are not funded to manage humanitarian crises. African governments, too, must assert themselves in this constrained humanitarian space or risk undermining their humanitarian and development capacity. In the face of growing crises and shrinking funds, it will take more than lip service and grand international commitments to empower local actors. International agencies must be more transparent and accountable about what resources they commit to local actors. Above all, there is need to change ways of work, challenge traditional mindsets about local actors and work to compliment and empower rather than diminish their capacity.