Transitioning to a locally led model
What we’ve learned about systems change in the humanitarian sector
A locally led humanitarian system that is accountable to people at risk or affected by crisis is also one where communities have agency and voice over humanitarian interventions that respond to their needs. This is the change we need around the purpose of the humanitarian system.
System change advocates, The Rockwool Foundation have identified three other keys for systems change in addition to Purpose: Resource flows, Power, and Relationships. Collectively, these four keys make a set that can work together to positively disrupt and open up a system for overhaul. As well as unlocking the system, these keys can also help us understand where change is happening and why, and where change is needed. At Start Network, we have been exploring how we can learn from these keys as we transition to a locally led model.
A new purpose
As we transition to a locally led model, we find that working in and for the current system can undermine our progress towards our systems change purpose. Our funding and monitoring mechanisms have not always conceptualised to serve the priorities of communities but instead, to fit international NGOs’ own strategies and agendas.
We have learnt that promoting locally led action, which also ensures crisis affected communities’ agency, requires creating space for reflection, investments and commitments to try new things. We have learnt this from our Community-led Innovation Programme (CLIP), which allows local leaders and communities to experiment with solutions to their problems, based on their unique contexts and expert knowledge.
Locally led action within the humanitarian sector is often inferred as one led by local NGOs. However, a response led by local actors does not always equate to a response that better meets the needs of the community, if both local actors and communities are not given the reins to determine modalities of response. An article in the New Humanitarian (published in April 2022) highlights that ‘affected people’ are mostly missing from the localisation debate.
Our next exploratory journey: How can we be transparent about these missing voices when promoting locally led action?
An article dubbed ‘How Local and National Organisations are Resisting Tokenism in the Humanitarian System’ provides some perspective on how to authentically include traditionally marginalised voices in humanitarian decision-making.
Many organisations in the humanitarian sector are reflecting on how to shift power. Actions range from holding themselves accountable to de-colonial ways of working, to curating opportunities for local and national organisations to determine decision-making in support of community priorities.
At Start Network, we have learnt from one of our national funds established in 2017, Start Fund Bangladesh, that power can be shifted in practice. A key attribute of their success has been a claimed space where power dynamics are recognised and can be challenged, all opinions are valued and different ways of working can be explored. We have also learnt through working with our locally led hubs that shifting power requires being introspective about power and acknowledging that it takes more than just inviting local actors to the table.
Our next exploratory journey: How can we better acknowledge and overcome tokenism as we shift power in the global humanitarian sector?
We believe that systems change within the humanitarian sector requires that diverse, equitable and sustainable relationships emerge in support of meaningful transformation. Start Network has learnt that despite facilitating opportunities for diverse actors to come together, local actors are treated differently within the sector, and this inequality threatens their effectiveness and sustainability.
Where we have seen diverse relationships emerge that are equitable and sustainable, there has been a claimed space where everyone can experience the distinct value that each brings, a clear goal for people to rally around and intentional engagement outside normal partnerships. We have learnt this through observing operations of our FOREWARN (Forecast-based, Warning, Analysis, and Response Network) initiative, whose networks are comprised of diverse stakeholders including academics from national universities, the UN, government representatives from relevant national disaster management agencies, Red Cross organisations, and both local and international NGOs that specialise in predicting and forecasting a wide range of hazards.
Our next exploratory journey: How can we advocate better for equity and the unique value of diverse actors?
Start Network has been intentional about getting more funding directly to local and national organisations. We have learnt that ensuring financial resources are managed by and flow through local organisations requires a change in ways of working.
Successful initiatives such as our SKILL (Shared Knowledge and Ideas under Local Leadership) Grants have light-touch reporting requirements functioning flexibly in local languages, with the design of these processes being led by local actors. Mentoring and support are also provided at levels determined by them. This contrasts with many existing humanitarian systems which require heavy reporting and compliance requirements in English, with design and decision-making being led by those that are providing funding instead of being guided by those that are receiving it.
Ensuring flexible financial resources easily flow to and are managed by local and national organisations requires working more closely with local actors to understand their needs.
Our next exploratory journeys: How can we expand the flow and management of flexible funding to local and national organisations?
Even further, how can we better develop opportunities for the flow of other flexible resources such as knowledge and technology?
As we transition to a locally led model, we continue to critically and creatively consider what is working well and why, so we can take these discoveries, adapt and incorporate them to overhaul current humanitarian approaches and systems.
Our reflections over the past year have highlighted numerous problems that emerge when trying to retrofit an old system into a decentralised locally led model. These suggest that there is a need for significant investment in making the time and space to experiment with new ways of working.
Intentionally ringfencing spaces for diverse relationships to emerge, where power dynamics can be acknowledged and challenged; where more flexible resources flow and are managed by local actors (for instance), is a time consuming pursuit, but one that will be critical in realising our systems change purpose.