Shifting power is relevant for so much of the international aid jigsaw, especially ‘localisation’


Lizz Harrison


The ‘localisation’ of humanitarian aid is a topic which has gained traction in the humanitarian world; a move towards humanitarian responses which are designed, managed and coordinated by local people and organisations. What this means is essentially a shift in power; something discussed at the Pathways to Power symposium.  

The word ‘localisation’ might be new or alien to some, but the concept certainly isn’t. The argument is that for humanitarian aid to be effective, efficient, and relevant, more decision-making power needs to shift away from institutional donors, United Nations agencies, and international NGOs, to local people and organisations. Something talked about less, but no less important, are the issues of racism and patronising attitudes within the humanitarian sector.

The Pathways to Power symposium provided an opportunity to have frank and open conversations about these challenges. The symposium was a microcosm of the very system many argue needs to change: those that fund, support and implement social development and humanitarian programmes from around the world. Those that joined are keen for real and tangible change.

International aid is an enormous jigsaw, consisting of so many pieces: humanitarian, philanthropy, development, disaster preparedness, community foundations and more. I think we all, at times, exacerbate the challenges of working across these pieces by using unintelligible jargon or acronyms. Ironically, the word ‘localisation’ is quite difficult to translate in some languages. This of course works to further exclude local and national humanitarians who speak no or limited English from the very conversations that are about them and their role in humanitarian aid.

Localisation is one part of this jigsaw. Talking openly about power and influence within the humanitarian aid sector in regional and global meetings and conferences is one step in the right direction. I think this was one of the greatest things about the Pathways to Power symposium. Not only did participants raise and discuss such issues, but they were ready to be uncomfortable in hearing views from those they may not have interacted with in the past.

At Christian Aid, along with CARE, Tearfund, ActionAid, CAFOD and Oxfam, and guided by national steering committees of local and national organisations in four countries, we have collected and listened to the views of more than 400 local and national organisations in the last two years. These views have informed a new global framework for localisation published recently. This global framework has priority actions for partnerships between international agencies and local organisations; the majority of which are about shifting power to more genuine and equitable partnerships.

Finally, what was refreshing at the Pathways to Power symposium, was the deliberate attitude to talk in plain English, creating an atmosphere of inclusion and camaraderie. Let’s not forget that for the people who should be at the centre of discussions on reshaping aid – crisis-affected people themselves – English is unlikely to be their first language, so this approach is crucial. I believe this is also the way we will make progress towards a more locally-led humanitarian system: reducing barriers to enable humanitarians who represent the diversity of the world they are working in to engage, and continuing to have open, honest conversations. These will ultimately lead to behavioural and practical change which shifts power into the hands of those affected humanitarian crises and the organisations that represent them.

Lizz Harrison is Programme Manager – Accelerating Localisation through Partnerships at Christian Aid

Comments (1)

Erin Edmiston

Vernacular choices and translation is not a valid reason to believe that real "Localization" a transfer of power into local people and their community, would not be well received or understood if it was in fact happening. Someone who does not speak English but is informed in their language and shown through action that INGO's are stepping back and they (the local) are able to step forward and implement change according to their culture and community--then we can know they understand localization. If someone from the local community finds it hard to understand "localization" it is because no "localization" is taking place and it is obvious to everyone but people who still believe something got lost in vernacular translation.

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