Despite international support for the ‘Localisation of Aid’ Agenda, working with ‘the local’ remains not only challenging, but also frustrating for many international organisations. As Kathleen Rutledge explains in this piece, this frustration stems from a variety of sources, from a sense that the local is frequently ‘less professional’, to a degree of mistrust about the motivations – particularly faith-based motivations – of some local actors. This is despite the fact that such local responders are not only persistent providers of assistance throughout episodes of humanitarian need (see our Refugee Hosts report on local faith community responses to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey), but also remain in place after a ‘crisis’ has ended. Recognising these responses is therefore essential, despite frustrations and mistrust, which otherwise render such groups ‘invisible’ within the wider international humanitarian nexus. 

If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda series on our blog. 

Barriers to localisation: Making the invisible visible

By Kathleen Rutledge, Queen Margaret University

‘They are a nuisance.’ Many around the table nodded. It was a Cluster meeting on Protection and Psychosocial care in Erbil, Iraq. The main focus of the meeting was to clarify what agency was working where, in order to avoid overlap. Most of the agencies at the meeting were international. The crux of the comments was essentially that NGOs and particularly non-formal local groups were at times getting in the way and potentially creating harm by offering support that is less professional.

In 2016, in Amman, ECHO convened a meeting of 45 agencies, nearly all international, to help develop their 2017 Syria response plan. ECHO is the humanitarian response arm of the European Commission, responsible for allocating the global humanitarian aid budget of the European Union. Most around the table did not have a direct presence inside Syria due to access constraints, but had local links. Most of their partners were formal NGOs. Other responders – the non-formal groups such as leaders and congregants from mosques and churches – were invisible in the conversation despite being greater in number and reach than all of the above.

This was unsettling, given my role as a regional director, communicating with a leader of a church in Aleppo. This church had been providing food assistance to hundreds of families each month for more than five years. I mentioned the lack of representation for such initiatives at the meeting; the response I received was mixed. There was some uncomfortable shifting in chairs because I had mentioned faith. Others nodded in agreement. The ECHO representative appeared to be in the latter group, saying it was an important point, and perhaps the organisation I worked for (a middle-sized INGO) could ‘talk to Brussels’ (ECHO headquarters) about this.

I was happy to have the chance to talk about recalibrating the radar. But the same worldview that led to the discomfort in the room was also within me. I’ve served as a humanitarian director for nearly a decade and my roles have included coordination with local partners. Despite the countless positive, life-saving contributions led by non-formal faith communities that I’ve seen, we tend to partner with them when there are constraints to direct access. When there is easier access, the tendency is to go with those who are more ‘professional’ – such as formal non-government agencies that can tick the boxes of ‘compliance’.

In Iraq, for example, where we had direct access, the community-level faith groups recede into the background in programme plans. They become stakeholders to be engaged, not leaders in design and implementation. We look instead for formal non-government agencies with greater ‘capacity’. Much of this is because, in practice, the core driver for localisation relates to funding. The focus becomes on local organisations developing systems to manage large-scale funds in a way that meets international donor compliance requirements.

The delegated task of INGOs in this context is frequently framed as one of mobilizing and capacity building. This language shows that fundamental perceptions of the role of local groups has not changed. Mobilisation generally refers to catalysing an action that is not happening, or is fledgling. In these terms, the emphasis on mobilising is contrary to all evidence. Local aid happens. Neighbour to neighbour. Through organised groups. It has happened for centuries and will continue to happen when the formal NGOS are gone. Capacity building has similar connotations. At the field level, this generally involves providing funding, training and assets. Emphasis is also commonly given to influencing groups to accept international codes (such as ICRC’s code of conduct). Capacity building is, self-evidently, a one-way concept.

And yet, when looking at the literal definitions of localisation, they refer less to mobilisation and capacity building than adaptation, or even a transfer of ownership. I have come to recognise that I have given more attention to how I can help local actors adapt to international expectations, than to how aid as I know it needs to transform. I have not asked these questions enough: What capacity do I need for local groups to develop in me? What would they like to mobilise in me? What would it look like if I shifted from capacity building to capacity sharing?

There are capacities I – and many international aid workers – simply do not have. I affirm, for example, that psychosocial recovery and social cohesion happens within relationships. However, I lack the inherent capacity to have the sustained, transformative relationship that neighbours can have with each other. We hire staff from local areas to help to bridge that gap, and yet those relationships are rarely long term. They are often service-provision focused, implementing defined program plans. Fundamental understandings of appropriate aid are often out of reach.

In my current research I am working with Muslim groups in Iraq who have suffered from the conflict with ISIS, to look at how spiritual and psychosocial needs may be best addressed. The findings thus far have surprised me. Islamic scholars have flagged that the Islamic worldview of suffering, well-being and psychology in general may be at odds with certain psychotherapy concepts from the Global North that are used to shape humanitarian programmes. Rather than focusing on emotional, cognitive and medical adjustment, focus instead is on a person making a decision to accept suffering as the will of a sovereign and loving God, and as a test for one’s benefit in the afterlife. Specific actions are defined in Islamic teachings as actions that enable such acceptance. These are goals in response to suffering – not well-being as commonly defined. This may have implications for current models of psychosocial care among Muslim groups.

This alternative framing is out of sync with my – generally invisible – presuppositions. It hints at other capacities required to respond to the humanitarian imperative among religious groups that may be currently hidden from me. How might I, for example, be creating harm by prioritising the need for ‘professional’ skills over the relationship and beneficiary-aligned worldview that local actors bring?

As I ask these questions and grapple with philosophical issues, the church in Aleppo continues supporting others around them. My contract ended six months after the ECHO meeting, and I moved on. The church and other groups like them are still there, delivering aid – as they have done for eight years. And they will continue to do this long after international aid has moved on, regardless of whether or not they are made visible through acknowledgement or if they ever hear the phrase ‘localisation of aid’.


Featured image:  Informal Settlement for refugees in Iraq.  (c) Kathleen Rutledge


Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog and Localisation of Aid series here:

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

Carpi, E. (2018) “Assessing Urban-Humanitarian Encounters in Northern Lebanon”

Carpi, E. (2017) “Syrians in Akkar: Refugees or Neighbours?”

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement

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

Jayawickrama, J. and Rehman, B. (2018) “Before Defining what is Local, Let’s Build the Capacities of Humanitarian Agencies”

Kidwai, S. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Seeking Evidence to Provide Protection: How Can Local Faith Communities Support Refugees?

Refugee Hosts (2018) Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches, LondonUCL Migration Research Unit.

Refugee Hosts (2017) “Refugee Livelihoods: Refugee Hosts in Conversation with ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group”

Rowlands, A. (2017) ‘Hannah Arendt: On Displacement and Political Judgement’

Svoboda, E. (2018) ‘Humanitarian Access and the Role of Local Organisations’

Trotta, S. (2017) “Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy: A Safe and Legal Route to Refuge”


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