Local Actors in Humanitarian Action: Getting Beyond the Talk

At the heart of the current shift in the humanitarian relief and disaster risk management is a puzzle: despite much talk about the need for the international community to do more to include local actors not much has changed. “This should be a no-brainer. They are the ones who are there, so why are we not getting it right?” said Mo Hamza, chief editor of “World Disasters Report 2015 – Focus on local actors, the key to humanitarian effectiveness” at a roundtable discussing the report’s key content at CEU on Feb. 11. The report is an annual independent publication commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and contributing evidence-based research on the challenges, trends and innovations in disaster risk reduction and crisis management.

Since 2012 the CEU Center for Policy Studies (CPS) has collaborated with IFRC on various student projects with humanitarian dimensions, and Andrew Cartwright, co-Director of CPS, co-wrote the introductory chapter. In his opening remarks, Cartwright stressed that “local partners are essential, especially when there are access problems,” but also because of the knowledge they contribute. At the same time, evidence is scant on the actual role they are playing and available data from some contexts point to notably marginal contributions (e.g. less than ten percent of financial funds after the 2010 Haiti earthquake were channeled to the Haitian government, and less than 1 percent to its domestic NGOs). The report explores this from several perspectives, including the importance of strengthening functional (not only technical) capacity-building, the need for more robust international legal frameworks where local actors are included in decision-making processes, and the role of technical development in empowering local actors.

At the same time, the authors of the report acknowledge that local does not always mean being more representative of those to whom organizations are accountable, nor does it always mean better or more efficient. However, what is at stake, said David Fisher, global coordinator of the IFRC Disaster Law Program, is to change an approach in which international organizations behave as in the 2015 film “The Martian.” They move into a place assuming that “there is no oxygen, there is nothing there, and that we have to provide everything. Even though there are some situations with very little domestic capacity, in natural disasters that is almost never the case.” To a question from the audience on whether the inclusion of local governments is not just something that is fashionable and that related problems with that approach are therefore downplayed, Fisher responded that while “you would get the impression” that it is fashionable, “if you actually look at who is making the decisions, who is running the operations and who is getting the money, it is not matching up. It is fashionable saying it, but has not become fashionable to do anything about it.”

Local actors” can mean different things in different contexts. It refers to state as well as non-governmental actors and can be located at national as well as sub-national level. They are embedded in complex networks of interdependencies and interactions that include not only the traditional international organizations (governmental and non-governmental) but also, increasingly, private foundations, private sector and diaspora groups. At the round-table discussion, two speakers represented this diversity: Albert Royaards, president of the Smiling Hospital Foundation, and Lyubomir Karakanovski, senior expert on disaster management, Bulgarian Red Cross. Royaards advocated for a broad interpretation of the concept “disaster” and shared his experience of how time consuming it is to access and coordinate with potential donors. Karakanovski gave multiple experiences of how various types of actors have interacted in a series of disasters and humanitarian crises that hit Bulgaria in the past five years, including an earthquake, two years with serious flooding, forest fires and the suffering experienced by migrants en route from the Middle East to Western Europe.

While most of the discussion revolved around the need for international organizations to change their outlook, a question from the audience concerned what local actors can learn from the research underlying the 2015 World Disasters Report. “The biggest take-away is to start standing up for yourselves. National and local actors should question how structures have been for a long time. For instance, asking donors ‘why do you have clusters based on these themes and not of the themes of our ministry?'” said David Fisher. The roundtable concluded with Hamza who emphasized that “challenges and complexities should not be used as an excuse for keeping status quo, so continue to push. We need to redefine partnerships. It is not about meetings or simple coordination. It is about roles and mandates, about defining these clearly and setting them within a legal framework.”

The round-table discussion was organized by The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Regional Office for Europe and the Center for Policy Studies, Central European University (CEU CPS). The World Disaster report is available here. It represents an important body of research, which builds on discussions at the 2015 UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. It provided an important substance contribution to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s International Conference in late 2015, as well as making a direct contribution to this year's World Humanitarian Summit where the localization of aid is one of the key thematic areas of focus.