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Setting the stage: local actors, the present and the future of humanitarian action

This year, the World Disasters Report tackles head on the complex and sometimes challenging relationship between local and international actors responding to crises.

The report finds that local actors determine the effectiveness of any operation as much as, if not more than, their supporting international partners. The international community still has a very important role to play, and responsibility for responding to large-scale crises cannot be transferred entirely to the communities, organizations and governments acting locally. However, a better balance must be struck.

Increasingly, those termed ‘local actors’ –individuals, volunteers, non-government organizations, businesses, religious groups, and governments, to name a few—are on the frontline of crises response and leading disaster risk reduction initiatives. This year’s World Disasters Report explores the reasons behind the surge of interest in the role of local actors, as well as some of the factors that explain why this has yet to move them closer to the driver’s seat in major humanitarian operations. It also discusses some of the barriers and concerns that have arisen with increasing the global reliance on the efforts of local actors, particularly in conflict settings. Finally, it highlights some of the efforts that are under way to improve cooperation between ‘traditional’ humanitarians and local actors.

Undoing us and them—building equal partnerships

The current humanitarian system is based on a model that seems increasingly at odds with the changing reality of the field. The landscape of international aid is changing, economies are growing stronger in some low and middle income countries, governments are taking more control and demanding greater transparency on funding sources, and new actors and new donors are entering the arena. Although significant steps have been taken by both international and local actors to address the barriers to successful partnerships, disaster response operations as recent as the Nepal earthquake, and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, demonstrate there are ongoing challenges, which must be negotiated.

Despite protestations to the contrary, international humanitarian actors continue to expect that governments are either unwilling or unable to respond to the needs of their people and that both national and local actors do not have the appropriate response capacity. From the other side, the monopoly of Western donors and established international humanitarian organizations is increasingly called into question by national governments and NGOs. New forms of humanitarian action are emerging and a growing number of actors, including national actors, want to play their legitimate role.

Making good on the rhetoric

The humanitarian community and donors have increasingly recognized the importance of local actors to humanitarian action. However, despite international commitments and the good intentions of many, post-disaster evaluations, research reports and anecdotes, consistently highlight that little space is afforded to local actors by the international community during decision-making forums and as it makes carries out humanitarian operations.

The World Disasters Report 2015 finds that there is an urgent need for a radical redefinition and reframing of what partnership with local responders means to adequately meet the complex, specific and changing nature of disasters, health crisis and conflicts. The report urges all disaster risk reduction and crisis response actors to review how the international humanitarian system is organized in terms of institutional architecture, policies and frameworks, funding mechanisms, and models of engagement.

Capacity development needs to be seen as valued investment in relationships and shared values, to build stronger partnerships. A global study to review learning from decades of evolving capacity development theory and practice presents a clear message that investment in capacity development pays off in the long term in cases where it is driven by a real local need, where local actors are active in programme (Chapter 2).

Revising the regulatory and legislative environment is crucial to changing the dynamics of partnerships between local and international actors. International treaties and international and national disaster law are examined with a view to further understanding current challenges to international assistance (Chapter 3). Adequately resourcing local actors is critical to sustainable disaster risk reduction. Shifting donor priorities, barriers and opportunities for increasing direct access to international humanitarian funding are examined and supported by quantitative analysis of several cases (Chapter 4).

The nature of humanitarian work has also undergone significant changes in fragile and contested environments. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan and other cases continue to present challenges that all actors have to contend with. The report explores how both international and local actors had to adapt to such changes. On the one hand, remote management is becoming a necessary mode of operation but one that presents ethical dilemmas about risk transfer to local actors (Chapter 5). On the other hand, in protracted conflict the picture is never clear, the situation is always fluid and in constant flux with shifting dynamics of modern conflict and proxy wars and local actors are rarely neutral or impartial (Chapter 6).

Cutting across all crises is the expansion of technology, particularly in digital communications. Technology in the hands of the population and used by local actors is redefining the way crises are managed and dealt with (Chapter 7). This poses a central question: to what extent would technology contribute to changing the relationship between international and local actors or put local actors in the lead, thus altering any balance of power?

A clearer understanding of the role of local actors, and an open dialogue between local and international actors is critical to the evolution of humanitarian response. This dialogue must cast aside entrenched assumptions of both the advantages and challenges each bring to crisis response, to achieve new frameworks, and true and sustainable partnerships.

Challenging the idea of a local humanitarian actor: the case of the Burundi Red Cross

Almost all Burundi’s 2,850 collines (the smallest administrative unit) have Red Cross branches of between 50 and 500 volunteers out of populations of up to 3,000 people. Across the country, more than 400,000 people out of a population of 10 million volunteer.

The collines are an interface between humanitarian response, government and international resources. The knowledge and trust generated through their activities generate cohesion and community acceptance when humanitarian issues arise.

In June 2013, when 25 Burundian refugees were expelled from Tanzania, their needs were met by local Red Cross volunteers for several weeks. When in August that year the Tanzanian authorities carried out mass expulsions, local Red Cross units were again on the front line, but this time local resources were not enough.

Instead, they worked with the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNICEF and other agencies to provide food, water and sanitation.

The transformation of the scale and sustainability of humanitarian work carried out by Burundi Red Cross in the last ten years has moved it to being an organization rooted in the fabric of the country’s vulnerable communities.

One indicator of the value of the humanitarian work this process has catalysed is that between 2007 and 2009 local volunteers constructed more than 8,000 traditional houses for returning refugees – work that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars had it been funded internationally.

In a post-conflict society like Burundi, volunteers speak of the role the Red Cross has played in creating neutral space in which different ethnic groups work together and rebuild trust.

Also available in: French, Spanish, Arabic

World Disasters Report - Chapter 1