Without the ‘local’ we cannot re-imagine humanitarian health ethics

Blog Series: (Re)Imagining Humanitarian Health Ethics

By Isabel Muñoz Beaulieu

The future of humanitarian ethics needs to define what is meant by ‘local.’  

The call to localized approaches in the humanitarian discourse has quickly expanded when big funders, large humanitarian organizations, and several nation states endorsed the idea of humanitarian aid being ‘as local as possible, and as international as necessary’ at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. [1] Since then, the discussion around localization has largely focused on directing funding to local organizations and building collaborative partnerships with local actors[2]. In the recent Grand Bargain articulated in 2021, attention was shifted to expanding support for local leadership, the participation of affected communities, and to provide more flexible funding channels to maximize effective responses that highlight visibility and accountability of local actors.[3] However, despite efforts to shift power to local actors, effective implementation of localized approaches has not been extensively documented [4, 5]. In fact, from the intended 25% of funding that was intended to go directly to local humanitarian actors, only 1% had been provided to local organizations by 2018 [6]. 

The ineffective provision of direct local funding over the past years is only one example of how a clear localization framework and approach is lacking and how accountability mechanisms need to be strengthened. When creating a future for humanitarianism we need to consider the role and future of the ‘local’ in these spaces. Re-imagining humanitarian ethics requires that we look closely at the recent calls for localization and think critically about them. It urges us to take localization as a framework with multiple moral dimensions that can support the re-construction of the humanitarian ecosystem and allow humanitarian actors to be held accountable towards the communities they aim to assist.  

Thinking critically about what localization means 

A first challenge to localization is its definition. There is no unified vision of what localization entails or who is included in the local sphere [2; 4]. Localized approaches can take many shapes or forms; for some organizations localization means tailoring their activities to a particular context, while others conceive localization as consisting of collaborative partnerships with local actors. A major focus has also been on localizing funding and resources, which means that local and national NGOs are meant to receive resources and be autonomous in deciding what to do with them. Furthermore, the question of ‘who is local?’, and more specifically who defines  this category, has created critical debate in the recent call for localization efforts. While international actors are usually associated with the Minority World (that is, the Global North), the ‘local’ has been associated with the national actors of the host country where humanitarian crises have occurred [2]. However, regardless of how it is defined, the sphere of the ‘local’ is likely to be seen differently from different perspectives. National experts coming from a capital city to a rural space might be seen as foreigners by the community. Moreover, the diaspora community returning to their country as aid workers also occupy a distinct space in the sphere of the local. In this way, having a limited common understanding of what a localized approach entails, or who is included in it, continues to inhibit the advancement and implementation of localized approaches and the way that outcomes are measured and evaluated. Clarifying who is included in the ‘local’ can help us understand the different power dynamics among humanitarian actors and define who should be accountable to whom, and under what circumstances.  

Another clear challenge for effective localization is that it can continue to perpetuate colonial logics in which a binary naturally leads to an ‘othering’ where the international and local are routinely compared. It brings about a dichotomy between international and local, asking questions such as: which roles are to be carried out by international actors? Where is the funding coming from and how is it channeled? What language is the official one to be used in operations and reporting? Who is really in charge?  Unfortunately, the creation of this dichotomy is reinforced by the power dynamics entrenched within the humanitarian system [7]. More often than not, international staff occupy leading positions, earn the highest salaries for working on the same roles, are fluent in a language such as English or French, and receive recognition for their skills which are privileged in the humanitarian arena such as logistics, monitoring & evaluation, and financing [3]. Utilizing power responsibly brings humanitarians closer to remaining accountable towards everyone involved in their interventions. The recent calls for localization begs us to ask, where is the source of contemporary localization efforts and is the directionality of these efforts geared towards truly local approaches? 

How to re-imagine localization and humanitarian health ethics?  

The future of what localization looks like has implications for how humanitarian aid will be theoretically and practically envisioned; as well as what new ethical dimensions will surface. In the process of engaging with localization discourses, we can begin to reframe them as means to an end, where localization is the start of a path towards a humanitarianism that is locally-led. 

One of the central ideas of localization emphasizes that communities and local actors should occupy a more central role in humanitarian interventions, however it does not imply that humanitarian aid will be led by local actors [5]. The degree of active local participation can still be dictated and organized by international actors. In this way, localization as the end goal for more local humanitarianism may not be the most successful in supporting the priorities and agency of local communities. It will be important to distinguish whether the end goal of humanitarian actors should be merely to encourage local participation, or to contribute to mechanisms that support local and national actors as the leaders of their own interventions, wherever possible.  

According to the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) latest report on locally-led solutions [7], an ideal locally-led practice is one that 1) sufficiently transfers resources to local actors; 2) does not encroach on local actors’ agency; and 3) respects local actors’ ways of being. To suggest that humanitarianism can be locally-led is to attempt to shift power, so that humanitarian interventions not only have local participation, but that communities themselves are prepared, capacitated, and are the leaders of their own assistance. It involves a mindset change that should extend beyond an individual project and influence the entire humanitarian ecosystem by genuinely utilizing communities’ expertise and knowledge. Funding, for example, could be more locally directed by requiring fewer intermediaries and allowing communities to be the main agents of priority setting and funding allocation, offering flexibility and adaptability to changes in timeline and community needs [1].  

The re-imagination of humanitarian health ethics will also be important to reflect on how we define the ‘local’ and the moral implications of power asymmetries on accountability mechanisms. It requires us to look more deeply into the epistemic injustices that continue to exist and to question where localization efforts are coming from. For example, the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality can limit active local participation in conflict-affected areas. If local actors are even weakly affiliated with any political, cultural, or societal group that can be threatened, it could risk an entire humanitarian operation by undermining trust in a community or risking that government authorities will attack or stop any provision of aid, if it is perceived to be provided by members of the opposition [4]. This scenario creates an external limitation in active local participation and leadership that requires negotiation and collaboration among international and local actors, while simultaneously questioning and overturning power asymmetries to continue the advancement of locally-led practices.  

What is next?  

Localization has become a central part of the humanitarian discourse with attempts to shift power to communities and decolonize imperial practices that have existed throughout humanitarian history. As a result, there is an urgent need to incorporate communities and the ideals of localization to a re-imagination of humanitarian ethics, but also to use the new ideas of a re-imagined humanitarian ethics to better define locally-led practices. When envisioning a future for humanitarianism, it is critical to think about what a localization framework means, what it implies for communities and humanitarian organizations, their relationships and the humanitarian objectives. It is important to think about who is accountable to whom, and what this entails as we continue to localize aid. If analyzed through its multiple moral dimensions, we can start gaining a common-understanding of what is needed to achieve greater localization, from the bottom-up and without perpetuating binaries among local and international actors.  

Localization as a means towards fully local-led interventions should be understood as a journey. One where all stages of the process are crucial for effectiveness and resilience. Localized approaches call for collaborative partnerships, complementarity of roles, local funding, and local agency. They are necessary measures to begin operationalizing locally-led practices generally, but they should not be the end. It is just the beginning of a mindset shift in which communities have power, agency, and resources to design their own solutions to aid and response. Once humanitarian action is able to build the foundations to localized interventions, the journey to locally-led humanitarianism will be set on the right path.   

References 

  1. IASC – Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2016) ‘The Grand Bargain – a shared commitment to better serve people in need’. (https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/grand-bargain/grand-bargainshared-commitment-better-serve-people-need-2016
  1. Fast, Larissa, and Christina Bennett. “Title Subtitle Authors Date HPG Report/Working Paper from the Ground up It’s about Time for Local Humanitarian Action HPG Report,” 2020.  
  1. https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/2021-07/%28EN%29%20Grand%20Bargain%202.0%20Framework.pdf 
  1. Elkahlout, G., Milton, S., Yaseen, T. and Raweh, E. (2022). Localisation of humanitarian action in War-torn Countries: The experience of local NGOs in Yemen. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 75, p.102921. doi:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2022.102921. 
  1. Barbelet, V., Davies, G., Flint, J. and Davey, E. (2021). HPG literature review Interrogating the evidence base on humanitarian localisation A literature study. [online] Available at: https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/Localisation_lit_review_WEB.pdf. 
  1. Development Initiatives. “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report,” 2020. https://devinit.org/documents/776/Global-Humanitarian-Assistance-Report-2020.pdf. 
  1.  Baguios, A., King, M., Martins, A. and Pinnington, R. (2021) Are we there yet? Localisation as the journey towards locally led practice: models, approaches and challenges. ODI Report. London: ODI (https://odi.org/en/publications/are-we-there-yet-localisation-as-thejourney-towards-locally-led-practice

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