To Localise Aid international agencies needs to address practices that undermine National Capacity
by: Regina Salvador Antequisa, Executive Director of EcoWEB (Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits), Philippines.
With less than a year to go until the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, international organisations are jumping over each other to champion the localisation of aid agenda, demanding that donors increase funding to local and national actors and investing in capacity building projects with a multitude of local organisations.
All of which is welcome, and clearly quite overdue. However, for all the talk, ultimately little will change unless international organisations commit to changing the way they operate in emergencies, which often actually undermine the local capacity they are seeking to strengthen, at the very time it is needed most.
The organisation which I head, EcoWEB was set up in the Philippines in 2006, primarily to address four inter-linking challenges which lead many into poverty: lack of access and control of resources, strained social relations, degraded environment and climate change and poor governance. In the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (known internationally as Haiyan) almost two years ago, EcoWEB provided relief to about 10,0000 families, both food and non-food items we had accessed from existing and new partners from neighbouring countries in South East Asia that include relief agencies and private companies.
“One year after Typhoon Yolanda hit – all nine of these staff members [trained in humanitarian response] had been recruited by international NGOs or UN agencies, who were able to offer salaries three or four times higher that we could.”
During our previous emergency responses in Mindanao five years earlier and in response to Typhoon Washi in 2011-12 we had been able to train nine senior staff with the necessary expertise in humanitarian response. One year after Typhoon Yolanda hit all nine of these staff members had been recruited by international NGOs or UN agencies, who were able to offer salaries three or four times higher that we could. Not only did this impact on our ability to deliver programmes, the time and cost of constantly needing to recruit new staff as well as the immediate loss of those with the necessary skills and experience to run an emergency response, but over the long term the dominance of UN agencies and INGOs reduces the opportunity for local organisations to manage a humanitarian response. It is a missed opportunity when small national organisations are forced to stop their response because they do not have enough resources to keep their staff.
This situation is quite clearly at odds with the movement we are witnessing towards a more locally-led response. On the one hand more and more international agencies are investing their time and energy into building the emergency-response capacity of local NGOs, yet it is to these international organisations that we lose our staff, and with them the experience and skills that they have invested in.
This paradox must be addressed if change is to be achieved. This isn’t to say that INGOs and UN agencies must immediately stop hiring local staff, which would be equally as undesirable as it would be impractical, but a mechanism that prevents or mitigates this loss in capacity is sorely needed.
This challenge is not just faced by EcoWEB, but by many other national NGOs here in the Philippines and wider afield. Which is why we, alongside 50 other southern-based humanitarian organisations have endorsed the Charter for Change, an initiative that commits INGOs to deliver change within their own ways of working so that southern-based national actors can play an increased and prominent role in humanitarian responses. Those INGOs that have signed, have committed to identifying and implementing such a mechanism, for instance paying a ‘recruitment fee’ of at least 10% of the first six months’ salary if and when they hire staff from local organisations during the first six months of a humanitarian emergency or during a protracted crisis or alternatively some form of secondment/mentoring arrangement to ensure that the training and skills that staff receive are not lost in the long-term. This is made alongside other commitments to channel 20% of their humanitarian funding to local organisations and allocate resources to strengthen the capacity of local partners by May 2018.
With or without disasters local and national NGOs will always operate in the Philippines. We are able to provide greater knowledge of the context and have strong connections with community and government structures. However we are currently disadvantaged by a system that concentrates access to financial and technical resources in the hands of a few international organisations. Alongside direct access to humanitarian funding, the strengthening and retention of local capacity is essential to move towards a more locally-driven humanitarian sector.
I welcome the direction in which the World Humanitarian Summit discussions appear to be heading but remain cautious that unless international organisations commit to making substantive changes, such as those eight outlined in the Charter for Change, local and national organisations will continue to be disadvantaged by the international humanitarian system.