Global aid agencies should defer to local NGOs

Disaster response must do more to engage with local organisations, says chair of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy

Disaster response must do more to engage with local organisations and let them take the lead in humanitarian emergencies, according to Jemilah Mahmood, chair of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy.

Global aid agencies are failing to use the intimate community knowledge and expertise offered by homegrown NGOs, with just 0.2 per cent of aid funding going directly to local and civil organisations, out of an estimated budget of $24.5bn.

The HLA, a global initiative to train more frontline aid workers, is urging agencies to focus on mentoring local groups to promote more effective disaster response, and step away from western-imposed attitudes to aid delivery.

“There are many local and national NGOs and there is always a fear of which ones we should work with,” said Mahmood. “INGOs should not just subcontract to local NGOs, but send their best staff so that you accompany them along the way in handling a crisis on the basic things such as project management, writing reports, accountability, and financial audit.

“It is a shift – giving power to local and national actors –which is really uncomfortable. When you’ve been leading for a long time it’s really hard to let go. [But] there has to be greater investment in national and local civil society capacities,” she said.

For its part, the HLA aims to train 100,000 people as relief workers from 50 countries in the next five years. Two of the planned 10 regional training centres are open, in the Philippines and Kenya, and a Middle East centre will be launched later this year.

The aid system is in dire need of a shake up, thanks to a rising number and complexity of what UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called “mega-crises”. Some 80 per cent of humanitarian needs are caused by conflict, with most lasting seven years or more. Despite rising generosity, the world faces a $15bn shortfall in aid globally, according to a recent UN High Level Panel on humanitarian funding.

Mahmood’s comments came ahead of a conference for civil society in Nairobi, 17 to 18 February, which will also mark the opening of HLA’s Kenya centre. The event will let local and international organisations discuss the main challenges facing the sector and feed into the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) – a two-day event in Istanbul in May designed to foster a global conversation on how to improve humanitarian response.

INGOs need to “re-examine where they add value”, such as in advocacy efforts at the global level, said Mahmood, who is also the former chief of the WHS secretariat.

The WHS will be a success if it results in better alignment between donors and aid recipients and if there is a commitment to monitor violations of international humanitarian law, said Mahmood.

Local NGOs have also called on donors to commit 20 per cent of aid money to national-level organisations; currently, less than 1 per cent of funding goes directly to these grassroots groups.

“If donors could increase [the amount of funding to local NGOs] to 10 per cent in the next two years and then 20 per cent in the next five years, that would be great,” she said.

Photo credit: Humanitarian Leadership Academy