Before Defining What is Local, Let’s Build the Capacities of Humanitarian Agencies

In this piece, Dr Janaka Jayawickrama and Bushra Rehman argue that the localisation of aid agenda is shaped by a discourse of global humanitarianism that is characterised by a particular, cultural relationship to power. This suggests that current discourses on localisation have largely been North-centric, often overlooking the Southern contexts and histories that shape ‘the local’ in the first place. This article, therefore, calls into question the hegemonic framing of humanitarian discourse, particularly in relation to the localisation agenda, something the Refugee Hosts project aims to do through our research in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. For more on this theme, visit our Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda Series, or visit the suggested pieces listed at the end of this article.

Before defining what is local, let’s build the capacities of humanitarian agencies.

By Dr Janaka Jayawickrama (Senior Lecturer at University of York and Academic Fellow of Humanitarian Academy for Development) and Bushra Rehman (Humanitarian Academy for Development)

Over the last 50 years of humanitarian practices, it is very clear that affected populations themselves never go to New York, Brussels or Geneva to request assistance. Regardless of external assistance or not, they continue to survive and live their lives. Academics, think- tanks, humanitarian agencies, and disaster and development experts are busy conducting needs assessments, analysing and diagnosing risks, writing proposals, implementing projects and conducting evaluations, whilst at the same time, many crises are effectively and appropriately responded to by the affected populations, sometimes without any external help. Similarly, it is important to note that the vast majority of people displaced by conflict and disasters are hosted by their immediate neighbours; usually countries in the Global South. Despite this, one is struck by the continuing lack of consideration given to humanitarian assistance delivered by local populations. Local populations, including local authorities and organisations, are often spearheading integration efforts and are providing rapid responses (e.g. Small Projects Istanbul and Syrian Women’s Association), often in the context of constrained resources as well as the obligation to meet the needs of the host population and the increasing refugee population too.

As a result, the need to maximise the role of the ‘local’ was popularised through the World Humanitarian Summit and then through the Grand Bargain. Following this, the idea of localisation of aid has become a buzzword in the humanitarian discourse over the last five years or so. Conferences, seminars and consultations, which mostly happen in capital cities of the ‘developed’ world, are difficult places for affected populations to access.

Rightly or wrongly, the current discussion surrounding the localisation of aid shies away from colonial legacies or the past. As argued by Shashi Tharoor, India was the 23rd economy of the world before the British colonised the country: when the British left, India was one of the poorest countries in the world. It is important to remind ourselves that before the European colonial project, there were no ‘locals’ , in the way that it is articulated and understood today. They were simply people living in their lands.

The current humanitarian system, which has been heavily critiqued as fundamentally neo-colonial, placed reliance on the modern European (and North American) knowledge system and the technology that went with it to initiate the development process. The claim of this humanitarian system was that the kind of response it generates can be universally applied and extended to cover all situations across the globe. This has not happened.

The reason for this is that the global humanitarian system is dominated by a particular cultural system with a particular relationship to power. This system is centered around concepts of development which assume the West represents the ultimate evolutionary direction for development or even an inherently superior model for the so-called developing world; concepts which are unequivocally undemocratic and exclusive. This has been criticised by various scholars and philosophers over the last 50-years. Authors such as Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?) to Hamid Dabashi (Can Non-Europeans think?) all argue against the persistence of historical distortions and the universalising and totalising tendencies of European and North American-centric knowledge systems which are monopolised by western theorists and infused with ideological, cultural and historical assumptions about the Global South. Such knowledge systems, they argue, tend to ignore or dismiss Asian, African and the Middle Eastern wisdoms (against Western knowledge systems) in framing responses to displacement and conflict in the Global South. Indeed, contextual differences, local perspective, localised forms of support and an intricate landscape of various socio-economic, cultural, political and economic realities that influence the lives of people are often suppressed and remain disappointingly absent in such responses (under the assumption that they offer nothing useful or effective to build upon).

Therefore, in using the term localisation, the humanitarian system also shows its ignorance of realities on the ground. To label an affected population as ‘local’ without considering the social, political, cultural, economic and environmental contexts which frame their social realities and reduce them to one homogenous group is not just an ethical challenge, but a moral tragedy. Who decides who is local?

What we argue here is that, before defining who is local, humanitarian agencies need to define who they are – examine their own identities as humanitarian actors, their visions, missions, mandates and agendas. The humanitarian system suffers from lower than needed capacity: humanitarian agencies need to build their own capacity and skills, so that they have the methodologies to collaborate with affected populations as equal partners. In this, the humanitarian system is not shifting the power, but shifting the power dynamics in order to create a relationship whereby humanitarian agencies and affected populations can learn from each other as a means to empower local communities to define and respond to their own development needs. In other words, affected populations must be firmly centre-stage with regards to humanitarian decision-making; a shift in power dynamics will both lead to the delivery of more appropriate and effective humanitarian assistance, and a more balanced humanitarian system too.

Featured Image: Many Syrian refugees have sought shelter inside Palestinian camps in Jordan. Here, Palestinian and Syrian refugees engage in building thresholds inside Baq’qa camp, Jordan. (c) S. Maqusi. 2015.

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If you have found this piece of interest, you may consider reading these additional items on the Refugee Hosts website, as well as the contributions made to our Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda

Carpi, E. (2018) “Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) “Refugee-Refugee Relationality: Hospitality and ‘Being With’ Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Gender, Religion and Humanitarian Responses to Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee Neighbours and Hostipitality”

Greatrick, A. (2016) “Externalising the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Consequence of Historical Denial?”

Grewal, Z. (2018) “A Successful Alternative to Refugee Camps: A Greek Swat Shames the EU and NGOs”

Harsch, L. (2017) “Giving Refugees a Voice? Looking Beyond ‘Refugee Stories'”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience, Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Sharif, H. (2018) “Refugee-led Humanitarianism in Lebanon’s Shatila Camp

Svoboda, E. (2018) “Humanitarian Access and the Role of Local Communities”

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