Five ways the humanitarian system can become more locally led

In December 2020-January 2021 we spoke to 83 stakeholders from four of our hub countries asking them open-ended questions around what a locally led humanitarian system would look to them.


Time to read: 9 minutes

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“The biggest hurdle to a locally led humanitarian system is the lack understanding and context when we talk about localisation. International organisations believe that it will put them out of business while the local actors seem to think it will make them extremely wealthy.” 

INGO stakeholder working in Pakistan

In December 2020-January 2021 we spoke to 83 stakeholders from four of our hub countries asking them open-ended questions around what a locally led humanitarian system would look to them. Responses varied with some talking very specifically on the how the system should change, bringing their own experience from working in the sector, while others focussed on what the system would look like. 80 stakeholders (96%) of the stakeholders mentioned at least one of the following five attributes in imagining a locally led humanitarian system.

The five attributes were: 1) A locally led system will be one where highly skilled local actors make decisions and claim more space; 2) A locally led system will be one build on strong coordination and equitable relationships; 3) A locally led system will be one that works alongside communities; 4) A locally led system will be one where funding is reliable and flexible; 5) A locally led system will be one that understands the local context. The answers to this question was open-ended, and these five attributes were not directly asked to stakeholders.

A locally led system will be one where highly skilled local actors make decisions and claim more space


Locally-led meant involving local actors at the heart of decision making for 65% (54/83) of stakeholders interviewed. Decision making meant claiming more space and greater visibility and voice.

"Capacity building at the national level so they can respond, the skills and the capacity building and really facilitating the ownership and leadership because that is more sustainable then having the one-off assistance." Local organisation working in the Pacific region

Most people (83%, 19/23) we spoke to in Pakistan felt this was central to the shift to being locally-led. Local actors’ organisational capacities would have been strengthened so they were able to work effectively on projects. They will have also been given opportunities to set priorities and lead on decision-making.

"Local NGOs should become the main responders and the role of INGOs should be limited to assist the local NGO. This would help to reverse the current situation. Decision making power should be provided to local organizations and funding available to local NGOs without a middleman." Local organisation working in Pakistan

Research by HARP-F has been identifying how unrestricted funding for L/NNGOs in Myanmar affects the way, or limits how they operate, lead, and make decisions in a locally led humanitarian system. They explain how unrestricted funding limits L/NNGOs ability to build and sustain their organisational strengthening, which in turn would enable more successful responses. Earmarked funding travelling through a donor shifts L/NNGOs role from a decision-making partner to an implementation partner. Therefore, flexible funding would allow organisations to make their own decisions based on community needs and changing contexts.

A locally led system will be one built on strong coordination and equitable relationships


While the type of actor mentioned varied, 60% (50/83) of stakeholders mentioned coordination and/or relationships when asked how they envision a locally led system. 70% (14/20) of stakeholders in Guatemala spoke to forming relationships with different actors, including L/NNGOs, women, religious and youth groups, as well as government bodies. Stakeholders envisioned partnerships between diverse actors, each aware of their role and responsibility, more communication and collaboration and coordination.

"Local government of the country have a mandate to coordinate any humanitarian action and lead, but we also know that governments do not have all the answers, so it is good to have organisations like us […] there could be a wide variety of actors for example a lot of emphasis placed on gender disability and protection." Local organisation working in the Pacific Region

"When in organisations with a diverse theme, it means it is more local. An example is in the health sector. The structure is very important, like the one used by the Network of Management Groups. It is important to consider that you have a diversity of actors." Government stakeholder working in Guatemala

One potential challenge here was understanding the role of INGOs. There is a lack of clarity when it comes to roles of organisations, whether INGOs will only act as facilitators or remain directly working on projects.

"Local NGOs are the main responders, the role of INGOs is limited to assist the Local NGO which would be reverse to the existing situation." Local organisation working in Pakistan

"Include local actors in decision making process, understanding how we work together with international organisations and do it in our context and use traditional knowledge. Localisation takes time — listen, consider all voices (leaders/communities)." Local organisation working in the Pacific region

The RINGO project seeks to re-imagine the INGO and the role of global civil society. It is a system’s change initiative prototyping to transform INGO institutions and how they function within a locally led humanitarian system. The project involves a range stakeholder including partners from the global south, donors and INGO leaders that have been working collaboratively creating these prototypes.

A locally led system will be one that works alongside communities


Working with communities was one way the humanitarian system will be more locally-led according to 52% (43/83) of stakeholders and in DRC this was mentioned by 85% (17/20) Of those interviewed.

Respondents noted that communities should be led by their priorities, giving them agency and a more dignified way of working. When communities are involved in processes, it was felt that responses would have higher levels of accountability as needs have been verbalised from those who know what they need.

"Consideration of the community as the beneficiary of the action, prior consultation of the local population, planning with the beneficiary population, permanent co-certification, monitoring and evaluation with the population." Local government stakeholder working in the DRC

One potential challenge here was changing the mindset of communities, with one stakeholder sharing how communities’ favour INGOs over L/NNGOs in responding to their needs:

"We also need to decolonise mindsets as they [the community] are used to seeing white people and that seeing locals as part of the work and probably can be a barrier. Some views are still about being assisted by foreigners, and we need to decolonise people mindset and recognise the capacity and leadership within our communities. In Fiji, people are heavily reliant on what government and other humanitarian agencies provide from abroad and when they see locals leading it they might not support it." Network operating in the Pacific region.

The Community Led Innovation Programme (CLIP) is led by Start Network, Elrha and ADRRN. The programme facilitates local problems, definitions, and the development of appropriate local solutions by crisis-affected people. Recognising that the communities affected by and at risk of crises are best places to solve their own problems, the CLIP programme is facilitating projects in the DRC, India and Guatemala to support community centred innovation which will equip, support, and resource people in communities for future crises.

 A locally led system will be one where funding is reliable and flexible


34% (28/83) of the stakeholders spoke of how reliable funding that is readily available for organisations working in the crisis-affected area was essential in determining how successful programmes are. Nearly half of stakeholders in Pakistan mentioned this attribute as important (48%, 11/23). Many of the stakeholders spoke about how funding local actors directly will mean they have control over how funding is spent, especially considering the rapidly changing contexts in these countries.

"For me, what it means is that frontline service providers in their day-to-day jobs are fully supported financially and fully resourced to be able to go and deliver those services dependently and not with the amount of financial reporting that comes with our grant making systems." UN agency located in the Pacific region

"Although the funds are intended for national organizations that live in the communities […], if the funds go through the international organizations with their housing which are enormously expensive and in this case the funds that arrive at the communities are either half or less of the half because their heavy logistics take up a good part of the funds." Local organisation working in the DRC

The Start Fund and Start Ready are changing the way humanitarian crises are being funded. The Start Fund provides rapid financing to underfunded small-to-medium scale crises, spikes in chronic humanitarian crises, and to act in anticipation of impending crises filling a gap in humanitarian financing. Start Ready compliments the Start Fund by providing fundings at scale to predictable crises. Start Ready works by pooling funds to ‘stretch funding’ across a range of countries, contexts, and hazards. For the humanitarian system to truly be locally led, fast and reliable funding must be accessible for L/NNGOs.

A locally led system will be one that understands the local context


For stakeholders, understanding local contexts meant a system which embraces everything from cultural sensitivities, community needs and speaking local languages, to understanding how local administration systems work and where and how to source supplies.

"Integrating local and indigenous knowledge into your work and being cognisant of the local context, what the local context is. You have people conscious of the local context and how people navigate how they respond to and prepare for natural disasters." Local organisation working in the Pacific region

"When cultural relevance is considered, thinking about reaching certain areas, language and nature of the context are considered." Local organisation working in Guatemala

36% (30/83) of the stakeholders said this a locally led system would understand the local context, with 48% (11/23) of stakeholders in Pakistan envisioning this as a practical way the system can become more locally led.

The Flying Labs programme is an example of utilising the knowledge of experts who understand the local context working in individual countries. The programme is driven from the bottom-up, and spans 30 countries with each Lab being fully independent. Flying Labs Projects vary based on context and need, but each use different technologies such as drone, data, robotics, and AI services to solve a range of problems including humanitarian, health, development, and environmental solutions. Together, they form the Flying Lab network where they share best practices and collaborate on different projects.

A major barrier in the system becoming locally led is lack of clarity over what it actually means. There are so many variables in the localisation discussion and different opinions on what localisation is or could look like. We must understand how to holistically think about localisation rather than only look to separate approaches. Common understanding of what locally-led means, agreements and commitments between stakeholders in the sector will be a first step in a locally led humanitarian system.