14 October 2018

By Alice and the research people team

In the 18 months since The Research People was founded, we have spoken to almost 100 local and national humanitarian organisations, as part of a range of research studies and evaluations. In this blog, we share some of the perspectives we’ve heard and reflect on what we’ve learned. You can find a full analysis of these interviews by downloading the individual reports associated with the studies, available through our portfolio page (see, for example, projects for the Start Fund, ActionAid, and Oxfam).

There is a diverse array of local and national humanitarian actors

It’s a mistake to talk about local and national actors as if they are one homogeneous group. In fact, there is tremendous diversity, across and within different contexts. Amongst other things, organisations vary in size, structure, funding mechanisms, activities, histories and motivations. This sounds obvious, but it is still quite common to hear general references to ‘local and national humanitarian actors’ without elaboration. There is also a tendency to equate local and national humanitarian actors with professional NGOs, conceptualising structures and institutions that resemble international NGOs. This risks obscuring the wider array of community-based and faith-based groups, and other less formal institutions, that are so often crucial to people’s survival.

One simple approach to differentiating between organisations can be found in a recent article for the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Network, co-authored by Lydia. The article, focusing on South Sudan, suggests four different categories of local and national organisation, varying in terms of size, funding mechanism and level of formality: from large national NGOs with funding of over $1 million, to community based organisations and small faith-based groups with limited funding, operating at the state level and often outside the international humanitarian architecture.

The diversity across organisations also manifests itself in different levels of satisfaction amongst local and national actors with the current system, and different perspectives on what they want from it. Some organisations, for example, feel that they are just getting on their feet, and want close partnerships with international organisations through which they receive mentorship and support. Others, particularly some of those that are larger or have been around longer, want space to get on with their work under their own steam (and the funding to do it!).

The rhetoric is changing, but resources aren’t keeping pace

In the wake of the World Humanitarian Summit, the Charter for Change and the Grand Bargain, there has been a lot of attention to the way that the international humanitarian system works with and supports local and national humanitarian actors. However, the general perception across many of the organisations that we have spoken with is that while there have been plenty of new activities and convening of organisations, this has not translated into substantial shifts in access to funding for local and national actors. For example, it is still the case that very few local and national humanitarian organisations have direct relationships with donors. Nor do they have access to the kind of funding that would allow them to offer attractive career packages to their staff. Until national level organisations are able to offer salaries and benefits that are comparable to international NGOs, they will likely continue to struggle to retain their staff – a challenge that has been documented in research by the Transforming Surge Capacity project.  

The issue is not just the quantity of funding, but the quality. Quality funding is generally seen as funding that is flexible, long-term, supports positive cash flow and accounts for overheads. The speed of funding is also important and appreciated, but this sometimes comes at the expense of participatory or collaborative project approaches, in which local partners are significantly involved in project decision-making and leadership. Stronger local humanitarian leadership can be facilitated by ensuring local partners are involved in decision-making and review processes, even when funding is short term. In recent evaluations, respondents from local and national organisations have highlighted the value of projects with flexible funding that have enabled them to design and lead humanitarian programmes (and in doing so, to demonstrate their own abilities), and to identify and implement learning and capacity development activities of their own choosing, amongst other things.

This resonates with the findings of recent research. According to the latest Global Humanitarian Assistance report, direct funding to local and national NGOs in 2017 still accounted for just 0.4% of all international humanitarian assistance (up 0.1% from 2016). In a recent survey of 340 local partner organisations by Ground Truth Solutions, respondents reported a desire for more core funding and more flexibility in the use of resources, as well as a concern about the impact of fluctuating funding levels on their sustainability. The difficulty in directly accessing international funding was also a common theme.

If donors are serious about meeting the commitments they have made under workstream 2 of the Grand Bargain, they will need to staff positions that will allow them to engage with a greater number of smaller organisations, or to invest in shared funding models – particularly models that are more accessible to local and national actors and that do not simply replicate the existing system.

This is the first in a series of TRP blogs reflecting on what we’ve learned from recent research on local humanitarian action.

To learn more about our research relating to local humanitarian action, visit our portfolio or contact us. You can also read about our philosophy and principles here.  

Keywords: localisation, humanitarianism, partnerships, local humanitarian action