Locally led action isn’t easy but it’s worth it

This blog is written from the perspective of someone working in an international humanitarian network, speaking to others in international humanitarian institutions.

Tania Cheung


Time to read: 13 minutes

Area of work:

Ask any humanitarian aid worker and they’ll likely tell you they’re overworked. Throw in a medley of ever-evolving initiatives, reporting indicators, accountability measures and expectations to work cross-organisation, cross-sector, cross-network, cross-nexus, etc. and it’s no surprise that some of these individuals feel overwhelmed. This is only exacerbated further when they’re told that in addition to everything they’re already doing, they need to work and behave differently to do their jobs well. 

I believe that’s how a lot of people in international aid institutions experience and interact with the localisation ‘agenda’. Even if someone has bought into the idea of locally led action and the importance of using their power to act WITH local actors rather than OVER them, they may struggle to make the time to put those ideas in action amongst the mounting pressures they’re facing, especially if it means working in a different, more complicated, and potentially more time consuming way. 

If that sounds like you, hi there! 

I see you, I empathise with you, and honestly, have some days when I still feel like you.

All that is to say I get it. And so this piece is for you.*

The fact is it’s not even remotely easy to genuinely shift to working through a locally led manner. Many colleagues in the sector will point to numerous practical challenges, such as lack of donor support, navigating complicated bureaucracies, etc. But to me, it boils down to  three main hurdles:

  1. It's not easy to relinquish control
  2. It’s not easy when succeeding in one way means failing in another
  3. It’s not easy being told you should have done better


Let’s take each of them in turn:

It's not easy to relinquish control

In the humanitarian sector, there is very little in our control. But so much of what international aid workers are taught through project management courses and best practice training is focused on trying to help aid workers maintain control in volatile, complex, and unpredictable contexts.

It’s as if we’re convinced beyond doubt (and thereby institutionalised) to think that everything will work out if we develop robust risk assessment matrixes, overspilling log frames with precise indicators, and tight budgets and work plans. And while I’m not saying those tools are without value, what they do not teach us is the importance of empathy, flexibility, adaptation and humility

One of the realities international actors who genuinely want to support locally led action now contend with is the necessity of letting go of a large chunk of the little control we’ve got. Our control mechanisms (log frames, strict work plans, etc.) aren’t always in line with how local and national actors work and think. Local actors are often more closely connected with the communities and used to working in holistic and flexible ways. For international humanitarian actors who have been trained to hold on to their small semblances of control, loosening our grip to allow for such flexibility can challenge the foundation of our operating approaches. 

Loosening these controls can challenge every institution. Some of these controls can enable international organisations to have the best possible chance of ‘success’ - or rather, success from a donor-driven perspective, thereby justifying their existence. For example, often an INGO can get involved in locally led action as a lead grant holder, then sub-grant to a range of local, national, or even international partners. A project that delivers on all the activities and outputs set out in a log frame, with smooth spending rates down to the last penny, and with minimal budget and project revisions is likely to become a donor darling. But if some of the local and national partners do not adhere to those ways of working because their priorities sit more with affected communities than with donors, that can cause the lead INGO to deem those partners jeopardising to the ‘success’ of the project, even if the project ends up being more successful in other ways (i.e. in terms of outcomes!). That then leads to a whole set of perverse incentives outlined in the next section (hurdle 2).

Secondly, locally led action literally means letting local and national actors take the lead. That means doing away with top-down decision-making by international institutions, and working instead to facilitate diverse actors as they co-design initiatives or programmes with a community-driven perspective. This is not only time-consuming but also, often more complicated. The work to generate consensus and alignment amongst a wide group of actors often requires a different set of skills; which is why, for instance, the majority of our Network Development team has prioritised training from the Partnership Brokers Association

Letting go of control in design processes can lead to unexpected results, with project ideas or approaches that may not fit comfortably within an INGO’s or donor’s toolbox. It can therefore be difficult to take a leap of faith and try something an organisation considers unconventional. 

It’s not easy when succeeding in one way means failing in another

As someone who has worked on several locally led or localisation-focused projects, when looking back on those experiences I can personally say that some of those initiatives did not always make our donors or senior leadership too happy. 

As alluded to earlier, enabling our local counterparts and partners to lead and work in a more enabling dynamic meant diverting from our more typical programming approaches. We took longer to make decisions and develop programmes because participatory co-design workshops take significantly more time to organise and execute compared to internal decision-making meetings. We requested more frequent budget revisions and called for extensions as we collectively agreed it was better to spend slower and more appropriately instead of rushing spend for spending’s sake. We pushed for increased funding towards initiatives that may not fall into traditional conceptions of humanitarian project outputs, recognising the importance of more holistic approaches to gain community acceptance. We challenged donors on the hypocrisy of having restrictive Indirect Cost Recovery (ICR) sharing policies and limited funding for organisational strengthening while perpetually requiring compliance to an ever-increasing set of requirements and standards. 

Initially, in the short term, at times it felt like we were failing. But there was always validation when we, and usually our donors, recognised the value in changing these approaches and the impact of genuine locally led action. 

Setting aside the tension between success and failure in the eyes of the donors, another - perhaps more important - dimension was considering the metrics that determine INGO success and failure. For many of these institutions, several Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are focused on organisational growth, income generated, etc. For INGOs who are also aiming to support locally led action, not meeting some of those growth focused metrics can mean that success in one area directly means loss in another. 

I experienced this tension first-hand when managing the humanitarian portfolio of an INGO country office that was embarking on an ambitious localisation initiative. We co-designed a three-year localisation transition to hand over the leadership of our largest humanitarian grant to a local partner. This meant that between one year and the next, our income from that grant shrunk by millions of pounds in parallel to our role in the programme, which was reduced to providing technical support. This was a big achievement in terms of the organisation’s localisation targets. However, it was also a dramatic reduction in our country office’s income, as well as another KPI looking at the amount of funding we were granting to partners (quite a progressive metric). On paper, according to those metrics, our country office was suddenly underperforming compared to previous years. This ‘failing’ needed to be justified to our headquarters. Luckily - and importantly - the organisation held true to its commitment to localisation and recognised the impact of the shift we had accomplished

Unfortunately, this is all too often not the case in many INGOs. Everyone in international institutions (HQ policy teams, leadership and board, operations, finance as well as the country office leadership and staff) needs to be accepting of the trade-offs that are part of enabling genuine locally led action if we expect this mission to succeed. Sadly, these perverse incentives are some of the biggest blockers for realising localisation. And so we need new ways to measure success while agreeing that failing to change is in itself a failure

It’s not easy being told you should have done better

Lastly, I want to bring it back to individual actors - us. In my experience, supporting locally led action has been an exercise in humility

If we - those who work in international institutions - want to genuinely make locally led action a reality, it requires creating a safe environment for local actors to tell me and you what they really think

At times, that can feel like opening the floodgates for a wide range of issues to come out - from the deep-rooted systemic issues that plague the sector to the daily annoyances and bureaucratic dysfunctions. At times, individuals on the receiving end of these complaints will be workers with power that can affect minor changes or individuals directly responsible for the problem and therefore able to resolve it. Other times, the issues can be so far above some actors’ pay grades, that they feel almost existential. 

In whichever scenario, it’s often not easy to hear that despite all our hard work (see point 1 above on chronic overworking in this sector), somehow, we still got it wrong. Or hearing that at the very least, we should have done better, known better, made things better. This can be triggering for even relatively open minded and self-reflective individuals, especially when they feel they have tried their best. This leads to defensiveness. And defensiveness leads to shutting down. 

The challenge facing everyone in an international institution is how to counter that very human instinct and accept criticism, challenges, and ideas with humility and openness to learning from those who haven’t been listened to sufficiently before. 

Because despite the difficulties, the effort is worth it. 

At Start Network, we have seen the benefits of supporting locally led action, to our local members, network, and on our impact. In our efforts to support the formation of locally led hubs, we have found that enabling our local members to own the hub development process – from co-designing the model itself to setting their own agenda – has been validating and empowering based on their feedback. 

It was the first time we were asked what we want… human connection is more important than money or anything as it creates a dynamic that isn’t transactional but meaningful.
Hub representative from Afghanistan

We have seen local members become more vocal within the network and externally, in part due to opportunities we share with them to speak at global fora. More so, members stress how the biggest change has come from increased confidence and visibility as being listened to, heard, and recognised for their worth and value, makes a huge difference to one’s sense of self and agency.

Being part of a global network of humanitarian sector organisations is a big deal. It brings voice and strength to the organisation. Small islands and populations can more effectively advocate for their people because of Start Network
Hub representative from the Pacific

Working in a locally led manner has also shaped the structure of our network. Local members and hubs have been active participants in design processes to adapt, improve or even transform aspects of our network. For years, Start Network has had the ambition of decentralising our network but grappled with the complexity of how to make that a reality. What structure would enable us to equitably and practically distribute decision making power across the network? How would we merge our existing network of members with our ambition to disperse into a network of networks? This question was answered in a design group led by and involving local representatives from our hubs, who managed to craft an innovative and transformative model that would likely have looked very differently if led by Global north institutions. 

But what many in the sector are most interested in is what locally led action means for our programmes and to people affected by and at risk of crises. 

All of the hubs’ programmes have an explicit (if not primary) focus on community leadership and participation. For example, many of the hubs are running community-led innovation programmes, where community members are supported to become agents of innovative change, as they lead processes that determine and shape crisis response. Start Network’s innovation team continues to facilitate each hub to design, shape and adapt an innovation programme to their context, with striking results. A recent (independent) evaluation, for instance, found that the programme’s ‘community-led innovation approaches have the potential to truly increase communities’ resilience, agency and, in the long run, reduce their dependence on external aid.’

The Guatemala hub, for instance, brought Mayan cosmovision approaches to programme design and the evaluation found that ‘recovery and enhancement of ancestral and indigenous knowledge present throughout the program, became an added value for the innovations developed and a way to strengthen the social fabric of the community, collective work, and visions for the common good.’ By focusing on community participation and giving space for a localised vision in the programme, the hub worked to ‘break down the traditional approach of objectifying communities as passive recipients and instead promoted the agency of [these] communities.’

Many other hubs are running similarly adapted programmes, all spearheaded by local organisations. In India, taking a systemic lens to a hazard-prone coastal region enabled innovators to help the formal tourism industry recognise their interdependency with informal traders, and thus the value in supporting informal actors to withstand crises. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, innovators developed approaches to help community members withstand the impact of volcanic eruption.

Start Network has carried the principle of locally led action into other programming areas as well. Our funding mechanisms (the Start Fund and Start Ready - which primarily focus on rapid response and early action, respectively) have significant proportions of funding going to local members and prioritise engagement with communities. 

One key example is Start Fund Bangladesh (SFB), a national funding mechanism born from our global Start Fund model. In 2020, 85% of SFB’s funding went directly to local and national organisations. While monitoring funded responses, the SFB team found that financing reached communities on average 7 days faster when the majority of it was delivered by local agencies, with a reduction of operational costs from 22% to 16% on average. Steered by its locally led membership base of 26 local/national and 21 international humanitarian NGOs, Start Fund Bangladesh developed a range of innovative ideas, and was recognised as a strong example of locally led action in a Grand Bargain report on the localisation workstream.

In the end, for Start Network, the results speak for themselves. Locally led action is now an intrinsic part of our organisational DNA. It has required us to dramatically change how we work, what we prioritise, and how we make space for our local members. Our time, effort and energy has further been matched if not surpassed by the inputs of the local leaders in the network. 

The single biggest value that Start Network added is that it has empowered us as a local organisation… There was always the talk of localisation, but no one knew about how this could be materialised. Start Network has provided that opportunity. Together, we are co-creating the humanitarian system and operationalising localisation
Muhammad Amad, IDEA and member of READY Pakistan Hub

They say nothing worth having comes easy. Locally led action certainly isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

*Note:  This blog is written from the perspective of someone working in an international humanitarian network, speaking to others in international humanitarian institutions. This isn’t to shift focus away from local perspectives, to marginalise or minimise them, but to speak openly from my position to others who may be in a similar space. 

I recognise that for many local and national actors a genuine shift to locally led action would likely be an affirming, validating and long-awaited change; one that means less time spent on convincing donors on why their ideas aren’t best fit for the context, less time negotiating for an equal share of ICR, and less time fighting for equitable space for local actors to be heard. 

In the same breath, I also recognise that locally led action might not necessarily always be easier for local and national actors either. I have no doubt it would be better, but easy implies simpler, less work, less complexity, which usually isn’t the reality in most contexts. Borrowing the words from an incredible localisation advocate speaking to their colleagues and fellow local leaders: “We’ve asked for more responsibility. Now we have to live up to that responsibility.” 

I have no doubt many of the incredible local/national NGOs around the world can live up to that responsibility. But it does require a shift in mindsets and ways of working and as someone who grew up in a post-colonial country, I know first-hand how complicated it is to decolonise the mind. All I can say is I believe in local  leaders and can’t wait to see how we can collectively change things for the better. 

Also in this series


Read more