Why just advocating for localisation is no longer enough

This blog is the first in a three part series about locally led action and system change. The next in this series will be titled “Locally led action isn’t easy but it’s worth it.

Tania Cheung


Time to read: 7 minutes

Area of work:

Reflecting on humanitarian trends over the past decade, one thing is clear: localisation and locally led action are ways of working that are here to stay. 

At least that’s what we can surmise from the number of frameworks, meetings, conferences, or workshops on localisation that have proliferated within and beyond the humanitarian sector over the last eight years.

Conversations on the role of local organisations in international humanitarianism have evolved; rhetoric is more nuanced and participants are becoming more reflective on localisation across varying contexts.  There is finally greater integration of local actors' perspectives beyond those of a token few, a long overdue practice considering the fact that the majority of aid workers are from the Global South. I have personally witnessed and collaborated in laudable efforts from local, national and international organisations alike to try to make localisation and/or locally led action genuine realities. 

One instance is having the privilege of supporting groups of organisations to form humanitarian hubs that model the potential of locally led action in driving forward much needed system change. The efforts from these individuals and organisations to try to make their hubs successful,  impactful, sustainable and transformative have been nothing but inspiring. 

Recently, I've also spoken with Start Network INGO member organisations to better understand how they see localisation and/or locally led action, and inquired how we can facilitate their closer engagement with the hubs. The passion and dedication of some individuals working in these INGOs to shift their often rigid organisations by advocating for the adoption of locally led approaches gives me real hope for change. 

However, in the end, many of these champions are also frustrated by the slow pace of progress in their institutions or the wider system. Without tangible organisation and system wide commitment to transformation, many can end up feeling like lone warriors in the fight for change.

So why - at a systemic level - has the international  humanitarian sector barely seen any fundamental shifts?

Many consider the World Humanitarian Summit a significant milestone for locally led action. For the first time, the big players in the international humanitarian system agreed and committed to increasing direct funding to local actors. Back in 2016 when the summit was first held, only 2.8% of international humanitarian funding went directly to local and national NGOs (LNNGO)s. During the Summit there was collective acknowledgement that the amount was embarrassingly low and many of the biggest humanitarian players humbly resolved to do better.

However, since then, the amount of funding to local actors has not only failed to come close to the aspired target of 25%, but has instead decreased. In 2020, there was a minor bump during initial waves of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw direct funding to local actors increase to 3% of international humanitarian funding. Unprecedented INGO drawdown and the resulting mass exodus of staff from these organisations (again, due to the pandemic)  led to donors redirecting funding to local entities and  INGOs increasingly working with local partners to deliver services. Some thought these changes in behaviour and financing implied a new direction of travel for the sector. Instead, in the following year, direct funding to local actors dropped to a meagre 1.2%, even lower than the figure initially presented to world leaders at the 2016 Summit. 

Rather than a harkening of things to come, the reassuring shifts observed during the COVID-19 pandemic were more like a blip in the system. The slight increase was not the result of an intentional system-wide shift to put in practice commitments made so publicly and passionately over 6 years ago. It was a temporary adjustment to meet necessity.

It’s all about the power

Ultimately, ‘localisation’ is about more than just the money. It’s also about representation, decision making, connection to those most impacted by crises - and above all, power. Power influences all aspects of the localisation agenda - who accesses funding, who gets recognition, who sits at the decision making table, whose voices get to be heard and whose priorities come first (particularly when trying to balance accountability to communities with accountability to donors).

Some in the humanitarian sector feel uncomfortable talking about power. I’ve heard many express how they feel powerless in the face of mounting, devastating crises; repressive regimes; declining and restrictive donor funding; and daily guilt in not being able to do more for people affected by and at risk of crises. And on the topic of localisation, many point to organisational and operational barriers, constraints and challenges that they feel powerless to overcome.

But all of us have power. And every person in the humanitarian system can choose whether or not to exercise it. Everyone in an international agency, whether the UN, and INGO or an international network such as Start Network, can choose to use their power with local actors and communities, to act in solidarity and put in effort to enable locally led action. However, all too often, it’s easier to resort to standard ways of working which, nine times out of ten, means using our power over local partners, collaborators, and members.

Using our power over local actors looks like imposing restrictive donor policies rather than negotiating for flexibility or taking on risks ourselves by pre-positioning funds or allocating internal flexible funds. It looks like competing with local actors for funds or imposing restrictions on partners that limit what they can fundraise for. It could also look like holding local partners and collaborators to tight timelines and strict ways of working without giving them space to co-design or lead processes; or expecting them to respond to asks quickly and thereby failing to recognise that often, focal points in local organisations are shouldering five jobs on their own due to historical under-investment in local organisations. Using our power over local actors looks like blaming local actors for their ‘lack of capacity’ or ‘poor prioritisation’ without considering how we contribute to their stretched capacity and overloaded priorities.

The power to make change

We all face barriers. We are all affected by our organisational culture, the wider system  and standard operating procedures but we all have the power to find pockets of opportunity within each and every moment to put change in practice.

Through the past few years of work around localisation and locally led action within the sector, I’ve seen examples of change, glimmers of hope, and have been encouraged by visionary individuals from local, national and international agencies dedicating time above and beyond their job to drive transformation. I have met few individuals more hardworking and dedicated than the leading advocates for localisation and locally led action, many of whom are working to form hubs with Start Network in their respective countries. They have gone above and beyond in service of the vision of change, working to design a decentralised and locally-owned Start Network; framing how we need to think and behave to actively decolonise our language, our practices, our policies; and co-design programmes and initiatives that demonstrate what can be achieved through locally led humanitarian action.

System-wide change, however, cannot rest on the shoulders of handfuls of individuals within organisations and institutions. Our institutions, organisations and sector need to change throughout and put into practice the change we have been talking about but haven’t yet fully acted on. Individuals can burn out, institutions persist. But if enough individuals form a critical mass for change, we can be the catalyst that transforms institutions from the inside out – not just in what they say externally.

It’s no longer enough to just talk about localisation. It hasn’t been for a long time.

Even if it’s hard, even if it’s complicated, even if it doesn’t always seem possible, we all have the power to push for change, call out problems, and work collectively to overcome barriers to make locally led action a reality.

This blog is the first in a three part series about locally led action and system change. The next in this series is titled “Locally led action isn’t easy but it’s worth it.”