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Dealing with exclusion – recognising systemic power imbalances and identifying ways to overcome them

  • by Heather Brown
  • 29 Mar 22

Photo © FOREWARN Philippines

Blog Post

The humanitarian sector aims to be locally led and therefore, it is important that the humanitarian sector listens to organisations acting at the local scale, so we can learn from their experiences and adapt to meet their needs. Over recent years, Start Network has engaged local and national non-governmental organisations through interviews and surveys to determine ways in which humanitarian structures can do better to support them. Gathering perceptions from non-governmental organisations has led to some pertinent findings related to exclusionary practices that some organisations acting at the local scale experience and led to some key recommendations that humanitarian actors can begin to implement in order to build equitable partnerships. While more in-depth research on these systemic issues continues to be conducted by Start Network and other organisations, we hope that this overview can assist international actors to begin positively disrupting the traditional systems that create barriers to equity within crisis response.

Three ways in which exclusion is experienced by non-governmental organisations acting at the national and local scale are: 

  • Inequitable access to direct funding
  • Having less decision-making power and voice compared to INGOs
  • Not being provided with space and opportunities to execute their agency and negotiate for what they need


1. Institutionalised exclusion is experienced by local and national non-governmental organisations through lack of direct funding, and in particular due to inequitable access to direct funding.

Local and national organisations mentioned the need for more direct funding and specifically more non-competitive funding. A local member of Start Fund Bangladesh states that local organisations should not be made to compete for funding against international organisations due to the capacity and opportunities international organisations possess that some local organisations do not, as this leads to inherent inequity. One example of differences in capacity was raised by some local organisations that are members of Start Network. They stated that international organisations, unlike local organisations, have dedicated staff to write proposals for funding and have lots of experience in how to write proposals. Therefore, more opportunities for local organisations to access funding are needed to build their experience and increase their positive organisational image as they implement responses.

“There is an inherent disparity and inequity in the capabilities and opportunities that International Non-Governmental Organisations [INGOs] possess against those which are available to local and national NGOs [L/NNGOs]. We must keep this in mind and ensure that L/NNGOs are not made to compete against INGOs for limited funding.”Sina Chowdhury, People’s Orientated Program Implementation (POPI), a local member of Start Fund Bangladesh.

“We're afraid that this is going to become a competence challenge for us in order to have this kind of funding... we are afraid because they [INGOs] have a lot of experience in topics such as fundraising but we don't. We work in the field, we work in community work and [alongside that] we apply for these kinds of funds. They [INGOs have teams that] just apply for funds, this is all they do, we are afraid we will lose in these competitions.” - Local member of Start Network.

“[When responding to crises, INGOs] are aware of micro-details that [funding] decisions are based on... We haven't any dedicated staff who can spend time on writing proposals for the submissions.” - Local member of Start Network.

“Most INGOs still do not believe that either L/NNGOs are capable of operating efficiently and [are] able to independently make decisions regarding the allotment and allocation of funds... There exists a disparity in the way INGOs are viewed versus the way L/NNGOs are viewed. To ensure that L/NNGOs are given equal opportunity in accessing funds to implement their projects and proposals, perhaps we could have a fixed percentage of funds that will be allotted to such local and national organisations working in humanitarian response…” - Sirajul Islam, Association of Voluntary Actions for Society (AVAS), a local member of Start Fund Bangladesh.

Recommendation: Humanitarian actors should adapt funding processes and interrogate their financing mindsets to promote equitable access for local and national non-governmental organisations.

International non-governmental organisations and donors have a responsibility to act on evidence that promotes direct funding of local organisations and international commitments towards achieving equity. Humanitarian actors that provide funding should continue to learn from local and national actors about how to change processes so that funding is accessible to all organisations. Even further, humanitarian actors should interrogate colonial and racist mindsets that propagate systemic exclusion and challenge themselves to accommodate new perspectives. Alongside mindset changes, local members of Start Network call for non-competitive funding and application processes that are flexible and not biased towards competency criteria of traditionally powerful organisations. For example, these processes could include flexible budgets that allow projects to adapt to community feedback or budgets that can respond to the heterogeneous nature of local contexts and application processes that do not require dedicated full-time staff.


2. Unintended exclusionary practices can prevent local and national non-governmental organisations from having a voice.

Accounts from local partners and local members show that they occasionally feel uncomfortable in meetings with international non-governmental organisations, which can be made worse by language barriers, and result in them having less participation and not being able to say what they want to. One local member also mentioned that the gaps and barriers in the relationships between international and local organisations are not overtly evident, but they can be felt by the local organisation. These experiences show that tensions in the relationships between international and local organisations are often the result of power imbalances which while hidden to the groups with power, play out in everyday settings like cross-organisational meetings. Ultimately, reduced agency and voice in cross-organisational meetings could result in local and national non-governmental organisations having less decision-making influence and tensions between actors may fester to a point that damages partnerships.

“...I think there is this gap in the relationship between INGO and local and civil society NGOs. It's not evident but we feel it at a subconscious level; that barrier is still there.” - Local member of Start Network.

“We feel uncomfortable [in meetings] for two reasons […] we feel uncomfortable with the INGOs and the process of these kinds of meetings. The second point is because of the language barrier that we have, everything is in English, and it is not comfortable for us having these kinds of conversations when we cannot participate always and say everything that we want in the moment.” - Local member of Start Network.

Recommendation: International non-governmental organisations need to spend more time and resources understanding and implementing ways of working that are inclusive to all organisations and that facilitate collaboration.

Simple first steps in the humanitarian context to make ways of working more inclusive are to translate documents and to ensure interpreters are present in meetings. However, as has been noted, the reasons why actors may feel excluded could be covert, and the solutions may require new ways of working. Humanitarian actors should listen to local organisations, explore new ways of working that support all stakeholders to participate and take the onus to encourage collaboration.


3. Power imbalances hinder local and national non-governmental organisations from exercising their agency and negotiating power.

A representative of Start Fund Bangladesh says, “the systems reproduce a power imbalance, these need to be addressed through systematic change.” In Start Fund Bangladesh, for instance, it was recognised that local organisations did not feel comfortable negotiating for better partnership agreements on Indirect Cost Recovery with their international partners who act as long-term sources of funding for local and national non-governmental organisations. In this scenario, the local organisations are somewhat reliant on their international partners for long-term sources of funding and therefore maintain exclusionary operationalised practices because they fear damaging those relationships.

“They [L/NNGOs] do not want to pursue [better partnership agreements for Indirect-Cost Recovery] that much with their INGO counterparts because Start Fund [funding] is not the end; there is other funding coming to those INGOs. They don’t want to create a challenge [for the] … status quo ... [Another challenge is] the L/NNGOs not finding it very comfortable to do the negotiation with their long-standing INGO partners.” – Sajid Raihan, Start Fund Bangladesh.

Recommendation: International non-governmental organisations need to interrogate their internal processes and cultures to understand and address exclusionary barriers that local and national non-governmental organisations face.

Preliminary evidence suggests that the current humanitarian system poses both structural and unintended barriers that make it difficult for local and national non-governmental organisations to challenge exclusionary practices and mindsets. This is exacerbated even further by power dynamics that reinforce the reliance of local organisations on funding from international organisations, while propagating hierarchies that limit the agency of local organisations. However, the complexities of this relationship have not been fully understood. There is a need for all stakeholders to better understand how the humanitarian sector systemically prevents local and national non-governmental organisations from having an equitable role and to find solutions to these barriers. Within humanitarian organisations, mindsets can also be challenged through staff training, such as workshops on unconscious privilege and that can help staff recognise power imbalances. Human Resources teams can also focus on embedding cultures and practices that encourage staff to grow equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The exclusion felt by local organisations we speak to, seems to be underpinned by feelings of not being valued or trusted and feelings of being used or of being discriminated against. For one organisation, the lack of opportunity and recognition discouraged them from playing a critical role within the humanitarian sector.

"As a small organisation we led a consortium, but the INGOs did not respect our guidelines [and instead] forced us to accept their way of working... [It was] not all of them but there were two very heavy organisations that subjected us to their lines when we were supposed to lead. We felt totally discriminated against and used.” - Local member of Start Network.

“There's always discrimination, this is just a reality […] local and national organisations […] feel like they're just there to support the international organisations, to prop them up. This can lead to local organisations being feeling discouraged and put on, and this is just a reality, and this is something that we go through every day.” - Jean Mudekereza, AFPDE, DRC, a local member of Start Network.


The final recommendation is for international non-governmental organisations to shift their mindsets and ways of working to recognise the value of local and national non-governmental organisations and work to ensure greater accountability shifts up instead of being demanded almost exclusively from local actors.

Some local and national non-governmental organisations explain in our survey that they have close community connection, local understanding, and the ability to be flexible and get to the places international non-governmental organisations cannot. Simple steps international non-governmental organisations can take to highlight the value of local organisations include recognising local and national non-governmental organisations for innovations and improvements made in projects, clearly attributing, and citing local and national non-governmental organisations’ contributions in their work and showcasing the value of local organisations in humanitarian responses. International non-governmental organisations can learn from local and national non-governmental organisations how to embed accountability in their processes and how to design projects that give local actors the flexibility to include community perspectives. All humanitarian actors have more to learn about the relationship between donors, international non-governmental organisations and local and national non-governmental organisations and how this relationship can be more accountable towards crisis-affected communities and first responders (often local organisations). 

"Trust us ...equitable partnerships can only be meaningful if international partners are open to learn from us and local communities" – Nanette Antequisa, ECOWEB, The Philippines, a local partner of Start Network.

"Trust doesn’t mean we all agree... but that we recognise the value of our differences...." – Muluneh Tesfaye, ECC-SDCO/HO, Ethiopia, a local partner of Start Network.

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Locally led action Hubs

  • by Heather Brown