Humanitarian response is more effective when it acknowledges, builds on and strengthens national capacity

7 October 2015
Nurhaida Rahim

by Nurhaida Rahim

Nurhaida Rahim currently serves as the Coordinator for the Partnership Initiative (PI)

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African proverb

When a crisis happens, the humanitarian industry responds by providing aid, technical expertise and a field presence amongst other things. Largely unfamiliar with the local context, international organisations typically contract local counterparts who have the knowledge and expertise to navigate the complexities of the host country. This is the norm in most if not all humanitarian responses.

Depending on the crisis level, priorities may differ, and this affects who gets to respond and how. The need for a quick response to a crisis can result in a disincentive to work with local organisations. In certain emergency settings, some sectors are prioritised over others. For example, in South Sudan in 2014, prioritising three sectors (food security and livelihoods, WASH and health) disfavored small local NGOs to be part of the scaling-up process or contribute to the wider national response. In the same year in Iraq, limited funding to local NGOs (even with a $500million contribution by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the UN for the Internally Displaced Persons response) and the UN’s focus on materials-only assistance meant that issues such as gender and protection, which are highly critical, remained inadequately addressed. If the UN had invested in local organisations that are better able to interact with the communities and thus add value to the material-only assistance, the response might have been more holistic.

Local organisations often come from the same marginalised areas as their beneficiaries and, in many ways, share the suffering of the affected population. The position they occupy within the environment, the language they speak, the understanding of their community, and their empathy could all be critical factors that can make humanitarian response not only more effective but also, importantly, mindful and respectful of local needs and capacities. For instance, when Cyclone Nargis happened, the local community did the lifesaving work first because NGOs were not allowed in.

While there have been positive developments in the field, more can be done to support the professional growth of local organisations. Building and developing national capacities will serve two goals in the long-term. Firstly, the aim is to build national capacities before a crisis hits and prepare these local organisations to be able to address what may lie ahead. This is necessary if we hope to ensure that there are adequate competencies on the ground that can respond first-hand when a crisis hits – whether such a crisis is man-made or a natural disaster. Secondly, when equipped with the skills, knowledge and tools to address the complexities of crises and potentially the aftermath, these local organisations can fulfill a critical role in supporting the development of their communities in a sustainable manner. International NGOs are not likely to stay beyond the immediate humanitarian response but local organisations are usually left to carry on with the post-crisis and early recovery work, often with minimal resources. To support their potential future role, more needs to be done to ensure they have the competencies to lead on that development front and obtain the resources needed to do so.

What’s needed is for more investment and real commitment to build and develop local capacities so that they can take leadership of future humanitarian and development situations that might arise. Humanitarian response can be more effective when the following is put in place: (1) A genuine commitment to building and developing local capacities so they are better prepared for the future and, (2) Investing resources to build, develop and strengthen a culture of mutual learning and exchange of knowledge and best practices.

To do so, we need to move beyond the usual menu of trainings and look at other alternative possibilities that are appropriate to the context. Building and developing national capacities is more than just provision of training and participation in workshops, seminars and meetings. Beyond the knowledge and information that can be transferred traditionally via face-to-face trainings, other methods must be employed to support the development of national capacities to understand the nuances and essentials of running an NGO to international standards. Mentoring and coaching are two modalities that can be undertaken to develop national capacities holistically. These modalities have the opportunity to inculcate soft skills, lessons and behavioral changes than can support better leadership and management amongst local organisations. In the long term, these should translate into more effective humanitarian and development responses.

Humanitarian response can only be effective when international and local organisations are genuinely engaged in the capacity development process. Beyond developing and strengthening national capacities, a critical shift is also required in the way partnerships with these local NGOs are conceived, managed and funded. Any engagement must be undertaken in a way that draws upon the strengths and contextual knowledge and insights of all those involved in the response.

Read more about the prioritisation of national capacity in humanitarian response in the 2015 Humanitarian Accountability Report.