Building our power to take the lead – CHS verification & local leadership

2 March 2022
Rehema Kajungu

by Rehema Kajungu

Deputy Director, TPO Uganda & CHS Alliance Board member

Covid has led us all to imagine new ways of working to protect the dignity, rights, safety and health of people affected by crises. As countries around the world start to ease pandemic restrictions, the humanitarian and development system should not return to business as usual. Now is the time to invest more in local actors who are closest to communities and can ensure service continuity in the face of global disruptions.

Will the immense shock of the pandemic lead to more investment into local systems? Can we grab the momentum for local leadership generated from the pandemic with both hands, and rethink more equal relationships between funding institutions, international NGOs and local actors? Can we develop the power of local actors to respond to future pandemics? I believe we can. That’s why I am calling upon the international partners to local organisations to seize this moment and nurture partnerships based on trust, mutual respect and a shared common goal of supporting impoverished communities. For me, TPO Uganda’s* experience over the last five years shows how CHS verification has great potential to redress the imbalances in many aid relationships.

Better decisions closer to communities

To serve people in crises safely and effectively, we need more than just good intentions. We need to be held accountable. Communities must be treated as partners and not bystanders or mere recipients of aid. That’s why we at TPO Uganda committed to the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality & Accountability (CHS), based on Nine Commitments made to people affected by crises. The CHS is rooted in the premise that by knowing what to expect, people are in a position to hold us – the organisations tasked with delivering services, protection and safety – to account.

If we are to truly listen to the voices of people affected by crises, strong leadership roles for local aid organisations are crucial.

It is undeniable that as local organisations we are closer to – and more reachable by – the communities that humanitarian and development organisations serve.

We also know how to draw in meaningful community participation to solve problems. We speak the same languages. We use tried and tested local solutions and leverage existing resources. We offer flexible solutions because we deeply understand the local situation, even when things change rapidly. We stay with crisis-affected communities and create long-term relationships. We are the best way to achieve accountable, people-directed aid.

Despite this, all too often local actors are still relegated to the margins; their capacity and value not fully recognised within the international aid system.

So how to recalibrate relationships between international and local actors? An important step is for local organisations to have greater control of their own financial resources and increased power in decision-making over the work they carry out.

We should be making the strategic management decisions and have our own secure funding pipelines, not be seen as a way of delivering services on the frontline.

To get there, local organisations need longer term, less restricted funding, and the chance to be trusted with larger projects. We need the funds, time, support and trust to develop our organisations structurally. Yet to access this funding and take a seat at the top table, local actors need to comply with – undeniably necessary – but cumbersome and complex diligence requirements. This is no small feat for smaller organisations who are already stretched in all directions.

I firmly believe that CHS verification has an important role to play helping local organisations to strengthen their systems and organisational power over time, centred around the dignity of people facing crises. Created by the sector, for the sector, the CHS offers a common, universal framework that can be contextualised to the local situation, while being recognised at a global level.

Confidence, trust and boldness!

TPO Uganda has been a part of the CHS Independent Verification process for five years to strengthen our organisation. Our initial audit by HQAI in 2018 was a real awakening, it showed us that the communities we supported were not aware enough of our organisational principles and way of handling complaints. The CHS verification journey enabled us to uncover this weakness and with support from our partners, we were able to quickly improve. TPO Uganda’s managers now make it a habit to remind their teams of their organisation’s principles and the Code of Conduct at the start of every meeting, commencing all discussions with guidance on what these principles mean for each staff members’ jobs. More directly, all staff are now required to recite an accountability statement before staring to work with new communities, making clear what treatment they should expect and providing a contact to report to if we don’t meet these expectations.

The result of these and other changes initiated because of verification mean that members of the communities we serve are now familiar with TPO’s commitments and what behaviour they should expect from staff. In recent reports to external verification auditors, safeguarding and accountability mechanisms are now highlighted as cornerstones of our community relations and interactions.

The 2018 verification also revealed how we could better manage risks, and so we created a new risk management strategy, including complaints and reporting mechanisms for sexual exploitation and abuse. As a result, we now consistently and systematically conduct risk analysis across all our programmes in all locations. Verification fundamentally deepened our understanding of and appreciation for improving our systems and mechanisms for service delivery. After putting in the work to strengthen our organisational structures pre-pandemic, at the peak of the Covid-19 emergency we were able to coordinate rapidly with partners to reallocate resources efficiently. This means we were able to provide psychological first aid to people in quarantine institutions and their families rapidly and safely.

Improvements made throughout the verification process have also started to play out in the dynamics of our relationships with other organisations; we have more confidence in our systems, as do others. This confidence has built up our reputation and increased levels of trust by our partners and donors alike.

More than that, we are now much bolderapplying for bigger grants and taking on more leadership roles in partnerships. We can feel that we have more power and equity in our collaborations with partners and funders, whilst supporting smaller local actors to learn from our experience.

As an example, we recently signed a USAID grant amounting to 20m USD, as the first local prime agency in the country to do so. UNHCR has given us close to 3m USD since 2021 and Danish Church Aid 450,000 USD for the same period. We have also started a new relationship with the Hilton Foundation as a donor for 500,000 USD. Several donors including the Dutch Relief Alliance, USAID and Penny Appeal used our CHS verification reports to shorten their due diligence assessments, showing the value they place on the process, and meaning less unnecessary paperwork for our staff.

Ambassador of Japan to Uganda, HE FUKUZAWA Hidemoto with the TPO Uganda team headed by the Director, Patrick Sambaga visiting the LEAP Project. Credit: TPO Uganda

Everyone plays a part

For the staff and leaders of southern local organisations who are reading this – I want you to explore the CHS and its verification options and how they can help you build up your organisation’s power. We are always willing to share our experience with you to learn a thing or two about its benefits. For example, CHS Alliance supports organisations of all sizes to conduct a CHS self-assessment process that shows how they can better meet the Nine Commitments of the CHS. HQAI has a subsidy fund that covers up to 90% of the audit costs for an external verification – Independent Verification or Certification. You can also ask those who partner and fund your work to accept CHS verification as part of their due diligence processes, to cut down on unnecessary duplication.

The partners and donors of local organisations who believe that better decisions are made closer to affected communities should also support CHS verification. INGOs, multilaterals, UN agencies and donors can make a huge difference in creating an enabling environment for local organisations to make the most of the CHS. If you partner with or fund local organisations – provide them with information, support and recognition of CHS verification. Help the local organisations that you collaborate with to build their own institutional capacity to deliver safer and more effective aid. You can also look at the potential for using CHS verification reporting to shorten and simplify partnership arrangements and donor due diligence checks – to avoid heavy bureaucracy and make sure people affected by crisis are always at the centre of how aid is delivered.

As we dare to dream of a post-pandemic world, now is the moment for local organisations to build up their power with a CHS verification – for a more equitable and accountable aid system.

Learn more about the CHS verification options and CHS Alliance’s work to better support local organisations  to use the CHS to take the lead.

Hear Rehema speak on the upcoming technical meeting at HNPW 2022 Benefits of CHS Verification for Donor Due Diligence: less duplication, another step towards localisation.

* TPO Uganda is a local organisation fully managed by Ugandans and has worked in humanitarian and development interventions for more than 26 years. TPO Uganda is independently verified against the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) since 2018 and is a member of the CHS Alliance.