An open letter from Sean Lowrie on localisation
Sean Lowrie responds to an open letter from Mihir Bhatt, Director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), part of a correspondence which began following the World Humanitarian Summit consultation in Geneva in October 2015.
I hope this letter finds you in good health and happiness, and that your family will enjoy a peaceful 2016. Thank you very much for your letter in December. At the risk of stating the obvious, allow me to assure you that it was of great interest and fundamental importance. Let me explain.
The localisation of humanitarian aid is a politically contested hot topic. Over the past year I’ve heard many controversial and strong opinions about power, money, control, effectiveness and organisational mandates. It feels sometimes like the humanitarian aid system is stuck in a 20th Century post-colonial argument, while the rest of the world is in 2016. We need more nuance in this localisation conversation. The humanitarian system has evolved naturally over 50 years to its current form, and contains important capability that should be maintained, as well as changed. It would be a waste, and it would cost lives and suffering, to recklessly promote disruptive change, without providing a route that would incentivise and enable the incumbents to evolve, even if some incumbents may not be able to change to the extent they should. To create a resilient and agile 21st Century humanitarian aid system, that can scale and adapt to escalating and changing humanitarian needs, we need an ecosystem of large and small, local and international, specialised and generalist NGOs.
Mihir – I believe we agree on the need for a common narrative that enables multiple narratives. I really liked what you wrote: “If we suggest a system that enables everyone to be a humanitarian, the system must also allow everyone to have their own narrative that remains distinct and yet allows the system to move on in the common interest. The challenge is to find ways to design such as system”. Do you, like I do, feel this to be more like a design challenge than a political challenge? Clearly, humanitarian system change is a political endeavour. System change is complex, difficult and cannot be planned in advance. The incumbents in the humanitarian aid system need to embark on a journey with an unknowable destination. This requires collaboration, optimism, good intent, and a practical focus. But we need to know in what direction we are heading, before we can take the first step.
What route would incentivise and enable the incumbents to evolve? What is our common interest? How do we enable our children to benefit from humanitarian safety net, with resources and specialised capability that can only be mobilised at the global level? How do we ensure that ‘customers’ influence the provision of humanitarian aid? How can local crisis responders have the support they need? How do we organise ourselves so there is both global alignment, and contextual relevance?
I look very much forward to hearing from you, and until the next time we speak, please accept my sincerest regards.