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National and international humanitarian partnerships

Stop, collaborate and listen

Blog Post

By Alice Hawkes and Kerry Ann Akers, Protection in Practice

 “How do we know they will do the right thing?” this was the question on the lips of humanitarians at a recent Start Network sponsored Oxfam Protection Peer Group meeting. At the meeting my colleagues and I were faced with some challenging realisations following discussions on two seemingly unrelated topics: cash programming, that is, giving people cash in an emergency so they can spend it on what they think they need, rather than giving people the things we think they need, and partnerships, that is, working with national NGOs. Both topics raised the question of whether international organisations are truly ready to relinquish control and enable decision making to take place as close to the front line as possible, giving national actors and the communities we work with the power to define their own needs. 

The principle of equality underpins the entire ethos of humanitarian aid, yet deconstructing international organisations’ relationships with national NGOs forces us to consider the more negative discourse surrounding the existing model of humanitarian aid, that of neo-colonialism. Humanitarian capacity is largely measured by western donors and INGOs through the currency of material resource rather than contextual knowledge. If the measures of power were reversed, local NGOs would find themselves at the top of the hierarchy.

To ensure accountability to the communities we work with, moving away from competition and towards true partnerships, it is time that international and local actors recognised the combined strength they would have working together. For example, in South Sudan, whilst INGOs were able to mobilise material resources quickly in an emergency, it was the national NGOs which remained on the ground in the emergency when INGO staff were evacuated and it was national NGOs who advised on the implementation of large-scale projects such as provision of food aid to ensure that local tensions were not exacerbated.

The Start Network Protection in Practice project aims to re-evaluate the nature of partnerships between national and international NGOs to enhance protection for the communities we work with. Building the capacity of disaster affected communities, enabling them to protect themselves is central to the protection work undertaken by Oxfam. However, time again we see INGOs undermining local capacity in order to fulfil specific objectives in a particular location, even if this includes the objective of ‘building local capacity’. At the field level this often means INGOs enter a location, offer better salaries than any national actor on the ground, including governments, and hire a community’s most skilled individuals.

In practice we see schools depleted of teachers and national NGO capacity diminished every time an INGO starts a new project, especially in remote locations. Although local NGO’s staff may not require the services INGOs provide, they are a part of the wider communities we serve and their place within that community should be recognised and accountability to affected communities should include accountability for the actions we take which build or deplete local NGO capacity.

During the consultations for the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit national NGOs circulated a paper on ‘a more equitable and dignified humanitarian system’, urging INGOs to pledge their support for increased assistance for national and local NGOs through capacitating, direct funding and partnerships. The document also called for compensation to be paid when INGOs hire their staff. Revealingly, the recent Global Humanitarian Assistance Report stated that only 0.2% of international humanitarian assistance went directly to local and national NGOs. Although this did not account for funds funnelled through international organisations to national NGOs through sub-contracting, which characterises the majority of international and national organisational partnerships. Oxfam recently committed to channelling at least 30% of humanitarian funds directly to supporting local partners.

Overwhelmingly, throughout the World Humanitarian Summit consultations, humanitarians called for people to be put at the centre of humanitarian action, which raises the worrying question; who is at the centre now? The word ‘centre’ belies the nature of the humanitarian system which is currently hierarchical with what the consultation report describes as a ‘top-down’ structure. Even the language used to describe the humanitarian system demonstrates its inequality, with the ‘top’ being donors or sub-contracting international organisations, which demand significant accountability, rather than those people or communities humanitarian action is meant to protect. A shift in power dynamics is sorely needed and re-evaluating how we establish and maintain partnerships with national NGOs and how we communicate with disaster affected communities must be central to this shift.

Coordination mechanisms, despite their title, sadly often contribute to a lack of collaboration between international and national actors. Often national actors find coordination meetings irrelevant or inaccessible, with barriers such as language, location and lack of time resulting in lack of engagement with coordination mechanisms. In complex emergencies the political landscape can mean that staff from certain local organisations would be put at risk if they were asked to attend meetings held in certain locations. Similarly, the organisations in control of coordination mechanisms are usually large international organisations, rather than national actors or a combination of local and international actors working together and as such, national actors are often marginalised. Coordination mechanisms are not conducive to inclusion of local actors or collaboration between local and international actors and as a consequence, large-scale responses to emergencies are frequently reported by the communities we work with as inappropriate to the local context.

The Protection in Practice project breaks down barriers to access for local NGOs in terms of global and national coordination mechanisms and enhance the voices of local NGOs in these fora.  Although reform of existing coordination mechanisms is greatly needed to facilitate access for local NGOs, if INGOs intend on turning the system on its head, then local NGOs need to be supported to lead such processes, not just participate. 

The nature of partnerships between INGOs and national NGOs must be re-defined.  Partnerships must be mutually supportive, appreciating the value of what each agency brings to the table; coherent HR policies need to be applied throughout the INGO sector which avoid draining a community of their most skilled individuals and avoid firing and rehiring on the basis of funding timescales; compliance rules are applied in a way which facilitates, rather than prevents partnership; and centrally, response decisions should be made as close to the front lines as possible. The benefits of genuine partnerships for the communities we work with are too significant to be ignored. Allowing the local and the international to combine expertise allows flexibility and resilience for the humanitarian sector, ultimately meaning a more effective responses for disaster affected communities.

Read more about Protection in Practice.

Oxfam, World Vision and the International Rescue Committee are putting these recommendations into action through the Protection in Practice initiative which seeks to foster long-term collaborative partnerships with local and national actors through the provision of mentoring and training services, and information sharing around protection coordination mechanisms.  For more information contact Kerry Akers (kakers@oxfam.org.uk) and Alice Hawkes (alice.hawkes@rescue.org).

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