What would ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’ look like in Ukraine?

Howard Mollett, Head of Humanitarian Policy, CAFOD

In the darkness of brutal violence in Ukraine, one source of light is the brave, tireless, creative work by local civil society organisations, networks of volunteers and community groups helping people to survive and to reach a place of safety. As international agencies scale-up their humanitarian response, the time is right to ask what would a responsible approach look like? How can donors, UN agencies and INGOs best reinforce local first responders?

I work for CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency of England and Wales, which channels funds and technical support direct to local NGOs in Ukraine and neighbouring countries; in particular to national and local Church partners playing a lead role in the response. I asked the director of one of them yesterday what her message to donors and international agencies would be and her first response was: “Don’t disrupt the fabric of civil society, find ways to reinforce it.” She went on to acknowledge the need for international support as local groups and aid workers are exhausted and overwhelmed. But it needs to be configured in ways that complements and supports local government institutions and civil society, rather than undermining them or poaching from their staff [1].

At CAFOD, we have staff seconded to support our partners on logistics and human resources, which follows support in the month prior to the invasion on security contingency planning and coordination with international Church partners. For example, Caritas Ukraine is a national faith-based organisation affiliated to the Catholic church in Ukraine with about 27 community centres across the country offering places of shelter (which will likely scale up further as the Church has around 80 centres across the country); and mobilising over a thousand volunteers getting food, medicine, safe water, blankets and other essential items to people in need. Over 400 tonnes of goods had been transported across the country over a week ago. As was the case in Syria, local Church groups are amongst the few that ‘stay and deliver’ with communities in besieged areas and other hard to access locations when others have withdrawn, and where international agencies cannot access.

Back in 2016, donor governments, UN agencies and INGOs signed up to ‘localisation’ pledging to support humanitarian action that is ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary.’ Based on dialogue with our local partners, five priorities to deliver on this in the Ukraine response are:

  • Get funding – including core funding – to local NGOs and voluntary networks by funding their own appeals and consortia, and through due diligence passporting – One step would be for donors and international agencies to resource the emergency appeals launched by local NGOs themselves, rather than expecting them to waste time applying through international funding processes. Caritas Ukraine, for example, has established an Emergency Appeal, and INGOs in the Caritas confederation are supporting this. Other donors could contribute to that appeal. Other local NGOs and activists networks have likewise launched their own appeals, which also merit support. In the week prior to the invasion, I asked Caritas Ukraine’s director what aspects of partnership quality could best be improved between them and their international partners, and a top priority she flagged was support to overheads costs: “How can donors or international partners expect local Ukrainian organisations to effectively manage risks like safeguarding or staff safety if they wont cover our basic running costs and systems to address these things?” Another step would be to adopt ‘due diligence passporting’ to swiftly get funds to local NGOs that have already passed compliance checks by peer agencies. For example, every national NGO that previously accessed funding via the UN country-based pooled fund could be seen as adequately screened to access other funding.
  • Maximising flexibility in funding to local NGOs – A top priority that CAFOD’s local partners have highlighted is the importance of flexibility by sector, geographic location and timeframe for programming. A local Caritas diocesan partner in Kolomyja was the first organisation to get a humanitarian aid convoy into Zaporizhzhia, and another local partner of Caritas Ukraine evacuated foster children from a social village in Kharkiv before it was bombed. The fast-paced and fluid nature of this kind of armed violence means that support to local first responders must as flexible as possible for them to move fast when access opens up.
  • Configure any international agency scale-up to reinforce, not poach from, local NGO and government capacities – As international agencies scale up their staff and programmes, they must take deliberate steps to reinforce, rather than compete with or undermine the work by local groups. As they go about hiring staff and planning their interventions, they will face a set of choices about how they work. One option would be to maximise the growth of their own office, staff and direct implementation of projects. Perversely, the surge in global funding to the Ukraine response may encourage this. If international agencies go this route, inevitably they will start to hire local staff, taking expertise away from local organisations. The other, better, option would be to deploy staff to Ukraine who bring expertise in supporting local organisations to strengthen their own capacity to meet humanitarian needs. Staff turnover should also be limited to avoid local NGOs having to repeatedly start from scratch with new staff in their international partners.
  • Establish coordination processes which enable roles of local NGOs and host government authorities. One concern raised by NGOs following efforts to scale up international coordination is that some UN agencies are still framing their coordination efforts around a presentation of ‘their’ response. This needs to change. Specific priorities in this include reinforcing existing local coordination structures, such as the Oblast (province level) administration, which lead on IDP registration and coordination of services. Feedback from our partners is that this is well-organised and digitized. Furthermore, there are good recent experiences in cluster coordination in the east, which could be built on. Caritas Ukraine highlighted how from 2018 onwards cluster coordination in the east had shifted towards a more effective and deliberate approach to bringing local NGOs into programmatic collaboration and support for capacity-strengthening. Another priority raised was that international actors need to design and implement less burdensome, more proactive and flexible methods for information-gathering to minimise the burden on local actors (eg using interviews, rather than expecting local actors who are busy on response activities to participate in burdensome form-filling or endless meetings). Providing funding or seconding staff to local NGOs to build their own liaison and coordination capacity could also be part of the picture, as this has brought benefits in other contexts like Lebanon.
  • Track funds and exercise leadership and transparency in support of local leadership – Despite all the rhetoric about ‘localisation’, most donors, UN agencies and INGOs are notoriously intransparent about how they channel their funds to local actors; with some only publishing disaggregated data on this long after an emergency response or not at all. This is partly understandable as emergencies are by definition chaotic and the first imperative of humanitarians is to save lives, and every moment or dollar spent on spread-sheets is a distraction from that. But as the global scale-up is clearly at significant scale, and sophisticated tech solutions are found to number-crunch and inform the response, then a level of more timely tracking of support to local actors should be possible. At the very least, donors should ask international agencies they fund to report in a timely and transparent fashion on basic metrics of partnership; such as their support to overheads costs and their overall level of funding to local actors.

Some have questioned the extent to which the political focus to the Ukraine crisis is overshadowing attention to other emergencies around the world. It is right that this is challenged and neglected crises in the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere are not forgotten. However, perhaps the level of attention to Ukraine, and the leadership role played by local community groups there, can unlock a wider shift in how the international humanitarian system operates? For this to happen, the decisions that NGOs, UN agencies and donors take over the coming weeks and months ahead will determine if terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘localisation’ are not just rhetorical aspirations, but get translated into practical action.


[1] Standard practice for CAFOD is to support our local partners to publish articles or undertake other advocacy strategies outlining their priorities to support local leadership in crisis response. However at this time, our partners are focused entirely on the response programming – so we publish this blog to share their insights as outlined above.

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