David Loquercio is head of policy, advocacy and learning at the CHS Alliance and the executive editor of the CHS Alliance Humanitarian Accountability Report “On the road to Istanbul”.

Last week, we launched the 2015 Humanitarian Accountability Report in Lyon, at the Bioforce Institute. One of the key areas we discussed was the role national actors can and should play in humanitarian response. As advocated in chapters of the report authored by Amel Association and the Victims Unit of the Colombian government, there are good reasons to develop reliance on civil society and government entities to respond to humanitarian crises.

The request is not new, and until now it has not translated in significant changes in the way international actors approach the issue. But the rhetoric of national capacity strengthening hides practices that undermine the same actors international organisations commit to supporting. For example, when an emergency strikes, international actors systematically recruit the best elements from within government services and civil society, undermining the capacity of the partners they rely on to implement programmes.

During the World Humanitarian Summit consultations, several organisations called for renewed efforts to localise aid. ACT Alliance for example suggested that at least 15% of funds should go directly to local actors. The 2015 World Disaster Report from IFRC also makes the case for better and more equal partnerships with local actors. If we want this agenda to progress beyond rhetoric, two things need to happen. The first one is not oversimplify and acknowledge that local actors are as diverse as international actors. In the same country, there are both very competent and utterly incompetent organisations. Being a locally-based actor is not in itself a guarantee that an organisation will know what is appropriate, let alone build more equal, respectful partnerships. During the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, reports highlighted that in some instances, international staff were better accepted than national staff coming from Manila because the latter were not only equally ignorant of the local language, but were also perceived to be in general more arrogant than international staff.

Therefore, if we don’t want the sceptics to be able to say “I told you so” when a local actor fails (as do many international actors), efforts to better work with local capacity need to be carefully thought through. The same applies to working with national governments. Humanitarian coordination structures cannot deal in exactly the same way with government structures in failed states and in mid-level income countries.

Secondly, humanitarian actors need to go beyond the buzz-words and suggest actionable ways to change the current architecture of humanitarian programming and delivery, addressing issues of funding, staffing and organisational capacity.

How can this take place? Several options are provided in the national capacity section of the Humanitarian Accountability Report. Some ideas are listed below:

  • International organisations have developed partnerships and strived to develop capacity through staff training and other organisational development efforts. Few have been able to measure progress and link it to their efforts. The CHS verification framework offers an opportunity to conduct this kind of assessment on an equal footing, as it will be used in the same way by international and national actors. Not only can this allow us to better understand weaker areas and plan improvements, it also helps to assess progress as well as better make the case for where the value of local actors lies. Incidentally, it can provide a more objective way to decide which actors may be ready to take more direct responsibility implementing programmes and managing funds.
  • We know that bilateral and multilateral donors are not interested in providing funds to national actors because they want to only have to manage the smallest numbers of partners. That’s why UN agencies have increasingly become fund managers rather than operational agencies. This means we need to find other ways to get money directly to national actors. Capacity assessments, such as those suggested above are part of the solution, but other avenues need to be explored in order to provide more reliable resource allocation to national actors. One option could be to identify a range of tasks, in particular those at collective, cluster level, that could be contracted to national actors with appropriate guidance and training. Under the right conditions, this could include needs assessments, data collection and monitoring, areas that tend to often be weak because data is frequently out of date. Another option to explore would be to have bigger pots of money within pooled funds at country level, and make it easier for local actors to access those funds, with a graduation type approach. Currently, requirements to access funds tend to be the same whether you apply for 50,000 USD or 1 million USD. This is nonsense. Banks adapt their level of security to the amount of cash they hold. Should we not adapt the amount of background checks, formalities and auditing to the amount at stake? And help local actors to graduate from smaller to larger grants.
  • Finally, disasters often strike twice for local actors because right after a crisis, international actors come in and hire their most qualified staff. When the likes of Real Madrid or Manchester United hire players from other clubs, they pay a transfer fee. Considering that international actors not only claim they want to support local actors, but also need them to be able to perform in order to implement programmes they subcontract to them, should we not find ways to mitigate the effects of or prevent poaching? Options to explore include setting up a code of conduct and having international actors signing up to it. Options that could feature in such a code would include ways to compensate for or alleviate impact of hiring staff. Exploring opportunity of secondments, mentoring national staff, or paying into a joint training fund are also ideas worth exploring.

Importantly, all these measures cannot wait until a crisis happens: it needs to be thought through and measures need to be taken in order to make local organisations fit for and resilient to crises and national disasters, including a tsunami of international aid agencies.