Do not make ‘localization’ another unfulfilled commitment – we can achieve it together

Do not make ‘localization’ another unfulfilled commitment – we can achieve it together
Session on localisation during HNPW 2020. Photo credit: Joy Muller/Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies.


Our Knowledge and Partnership Manager, Joy Muller, shares some personal reflections on the need to increase localization in the humanitarian sector, and how the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies can play a key role in this.

Over the course of my career in the humanitarian sector, I witnessed many important moments where I felt things were changing. One of such memorable events took place at the 2010 Development Cooperation Forum (DCF), a meeting held every two years to review the latest trends and progress in international development cooperation, and encourage coordination across diverse actors and activities.

This second DCF in 2010, compared to the first meeting in 2008, had a different atmosphere.  Seated in the meeting room, I could feel the excitement generated by the upcoming referendum for Southern Sudan on whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent.  Participants in the meeting were anticipating the birth of a new nation, South Sudan, and the end the Africa’s longest-running civil war. 

Various stakeholders expressed optimism and the willingness to coordinate and support the development of the new state.  I was impressed by such declarations suggesting to act together to support building a nation. The idea was that, by walking our talk together in a coordinated and coherent manner, and with a complementarity approach, we could make it.

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan gained independence. The peacetime followed by the independence declaration, however, was ephemeral: the country dived back in civil war from 2013 to 2018.  Today, in July 2020, the Human Development Index[1] has placed the country in the low human development category and positioning it at 186 out of 189 countries and territories.

Working in the academic sector focusing on human development in the humanitarian sector, I regard this as a window of opportunity opened with a fanfare, and closed in silence.

This anecdote made me think of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016, a huge gathering attended by 9’000 participants from 180 Member State and that, in addition to the WHS’s official outcomes such as the Agenda for Humanity, the WHS Commitments for Action and the Grand Bargain, generated more than 3’500 commitments to action. 

Did such an extraordinary gathering manage to turn commitments into meaningful change in the humanitarian sector for the world’s most vulnerable people?

Let’s take the commitment to the “localization” agenda – workstream #2 of the Grand Bargain – as an example. 

In 2016, stakeholders at WHS recognized that developing local capacity is imperative to increasing aid effectiveness, bridging humanitarian and development gap, and bringing a better tomorrow to those caught up in humanitarian emergencies. Assessments and analyses have been made since 2016 to identify needs and barriers. The international community has produced enough guidance for it.

What needs to be done is clear.  Yet, there has been no system-wide shift in operation practice.  For instance, investments in capacities have not been made by the Grand Bargain signatories.  Also, there is still little interest to apply consistently at country level the participatory and localisation policies that they have developed and committed to their implementation.

Among the four commitment-focusses – capacity strengthening; financing; coordination; and partnerships – funding and coordination have attracted more attention.  Four years later, funding to local actors has increased, but only timidly, while coordination has always been central for discussion. Yet, there has not been a comparable increase in investments in local actors’ capacities to enable them to absorb more international fund (Metcalf-Hough et al, 2020).

More recently, the COVID-19 crisis has opened our eyes and highlighted even further the need for localisation. Local actors have repeatedly requested for capacity strengthening and international actors continue to claim gaps in local capacity. The demand is there and is for us to act upon.  But, where is our stance in the progress toward the ‘localisation’ agenda, in July 2020, four years after WHS? 

Why this lack of progress to advance ‘localisation’? I see two questions which require honest answers from the humanitarian sector, particularly INGOs.

Do we trust local NGOs? I mean the local of the locals, not those who are INGO members enjoying their status provided by their “umbrella” organisations.  If yes, then why accountability is still in one direction, with only local actors being held accountable to international standards/processes, and not mutual with due regard for different contextual dynamics and risk sharing?

There is also enough debate on humanitarian aid and contemporary colonialism.  Recently, Hugo Slim’s article Is racism part of our reluctance to localize humanitarian action? covered this topic and it is worth reflecting on.  As Slim points out, the white privilege in humanitarian discourse and systems – in short, racism – is the root cause of the international power in the sector maintaining its status quo.  The western humanitarian systems today have followed their colonial ancestors.  Can we trust ‘them’ – the people and power in local organisations and national governments – to get things right?  In worst cases, racism can be institutionalized by Western INGOs and be reflected in their hiring practices and workplace culture.

Are INGOs willing to leave their driving seat to local NGOs?  If yes, there would be considerable investment to strengthen local actors’ capacities for their leaderships. In this regard, it is interesting to read that from several interviews HPG/ODI researchers had observed that the concern among some INGOs about the impact of localisation on their market share had held back progress.

If the answers to the above two questions are ‘no’, then certainly talking about ‘coordination’ and ‘financing’ will keep the supremacy position of those INGOs already in the driving seat. In this scenario, the commitments made will remain lip service. 

When the Grand Bargain reaches the end of its five-year framework in 2021, the very local NGOs and their capacity will be out of mind of the international community, just like South Sudan.

We have all in place – the demand, the required understanding, the commitments, and all kind of norms – why can’t we just pull strings and make things happen, if our answers to the two questions are ‘yes’?  

In collaboration, the academic sector can support the humanitarian sector to put its act together to develop the capacity at the local level for more effective aid, and bring humanitarian aid to result in development.

At the Centre of Humanitarian Studies we will play an active catalyst role in local capacity strengthening and support for ‘localisation’ to happen. ‘Localised’ training is a way forward. In consultation with local academic institutions, humanitarian organisations and local expert organisations on the ground, we can co-design a curriculum that fits to the local context and learning culture, to meet needs, and delivered closer to where frontline workers operate.  When the needed capacity is in place, the humanitarian sector as a whole can perform better and be more effective in aid, and help end humanitarian need.


Barbelet, V., 2019. Rethinking capacity and complementarity for a more local humanitarian action. ODI.

Metcalf-Hough et al, 2019.  Grand Bargain annual independent report.  A HPG commissioned report.

Metcalf-Hough et al, 2020.  Grand Bargain annual independent report.  A HPG commissioned report.

Slim, H., 2020. Is racism part of our reluctance to localize humanitarian action?Sueres, J., 2016.  Is aid a contemporary manifestation of colonialism?    

[1] According to the Human Development Report 2019, South Sudan is among the bottom five, positioned before Chad, Central Africa Republic, and Niger (lowest HDI in the list).