Image by Qamar Kassim/Pastoralist Girls Initiative
  • Blog
  • 4 March 2021

Localisation is here to stay: Lessons from Kenya

As part of a DI research team, Martha Getachew Bekele heard from over 30 humanitarian actors working in Kenya. Here she reveals what localisation means to them.

Written by Martha Getachew Bekele

Lead Analyst, East Africa

All agree on the benefits of locally led humanitarian action

If there is any crisis that has made the crucial role of local humanitarian actors in Kenya ever more apparent, it is the Covid-19 pandemic. Movement restrictions as a result of the pandemic, amid flooding and locust invasions, have left many of the frontline responders on their own.

All the actors I heard from – both local actors and staff at international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and UN agencies – agreed local frontline responders on the ground are a lot quicker, more culturally sensitive, cost effective, and more likely to be around for the longer term. However, they are often relegated to sub-contracting, while INGOs serve as an intermediary between local humanitarian actors and ‘back donors’ (the donor from whom funds originate).

What is slowing the transition to localisation?

An appropriate partnership between an INGO and a local actor should shift responsibility to those that are best placed to deliver, especially when time is of the essence. Many INGOs and UN agencies have been busy with direct service delivery and sub-contracting local actors on short term basis.

This has meant that adopting transformative partnership models to create an accountable and transparent humanitarian sector and strengthen local actors’ capacity for sustainable delivery of aid have long been neglected. Actors told me that in areas that INGOs have been operational for more than 40 years, it is common to find not a single local actor with adequate capacity to take over from the INGOs.

But partnership modalities between local actors and INGOs/UN agencies have been evolving. To understand the different partnership modalities some INGOs and UN agencies are currently employing to drive the localisation agenda, Development Initiatives, with financial support from the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Humanitarian Platform and Oxfam in Kenya, engaged 21 Kenyan local humanitarian actors and 10 INGO respondents. The key learnings from the interviews, conversations and workshops that constituted the research for this forthcoming report brought out some interesting findings.

All localisation dimensions are equal, but some are more equal

There are seven dimensions of localisation and all of them are important.

  • The quality and quantity of funding
  • The equity of partnerships and relationships
  • The participation revolution and the influence of affected populations
  • The visibility of local and national actors in humanitarian and public spheres
  • Engagement with national coordination mechanisms
  • Institutional and individual capacity building
  • The influence of national actors on international policy

When we asked Kenyan frontline responders to prioritise these dimensions, they believed that funding, capacity building and equitable partnerships are more critical. According to local actors, the most preferable partnership modalities are those that involve local responders in financial decisions and processes (including providing opportunities for joint financial decisions). Local actors believe modalities that consider core costs and organisational capacity strengthening within the partnership agreements are meaningful and empowering.

What localisation is not

From the discussions we held, we also learnt what humanitarian responders, both local and international, do not consider localisation to be:

  • Localisation is not about registering INGOs as local NGOs, nor is it viewing national affiliates as local actors. Perhaps this explains why the Charter for Change (C4C) coalition has few big INGO members, as it requires potential members to change their approach rather than general agreement on the need for sector reform (which is captured in the Grand Bargain).
  • Localisation is not about INGOs and UN agencies exiting from the humanitarian space. Rather, it is about moving away from direct service delivery and strengthening a humanitarian system that can support local authorities and responders.
  • Localisation is not about creating a dominant local actor. It defeats the purpose if big local organisations occupy the space to become the new brokers, thus creating barriers for smaller local NGOs in the sector.
  • Localisation does not reduce the accountability of local actors. Certain partnership modalities such as funding flexibility should not be confused with ambiguous systems or processes that compromise integrity.
  • Localisation is not about empowering local actors to carry out solely humanitarian responses. Capacity strengthening must shift from firefighting to sustainability, with a focus on linking long-term resilience and development programmes. Ultimately, the aim should be breaking down the wall that divides the humanitarian and development sectors.

Apparent to some but not to all – what does the future hold for localisation?

The view on the ground is that localisation is here to stay. There is increasing awareness that many of the activities carried out by INGOs and UN agencies should be led and implemented by the national and sub-national authorities, and not foreign governments.

We heard during our research that some development partners have already started turning down funding proposals that do not feature localisation elements. While a 'trust deficit’ was noted as a reason why donors are reluctant to engage directly with local actors for now, many in the sector are asking for how long INGOs will continue as the main contractors for back donors.

Convincing anyone to let go of favourable and unequal power is not an easy task. Resistance from INGO staff was also cited as a huge challenge in the localisation process. Ultimately, change needs to be driven by open-minded leadership within INGOs and UN agencies, particularly at their headquarters.

Two opposing forces mean business as usual cannot continue in Kenya: on the one hand, the increasing severity of climate crisis is creating increased need, while on the other, dwindling official development assistance is reducing the capacity to respond to that need. This is a wake-up call to the international humanitarian sector to reorganise itself and adapt to supporting localisation. From what we could discern, donors will soon realise they get the best value for money by going directly to local actors.

More generally, localisation chimes with the ongoing activism towards fiscal transparency, which is the basis for trust and seems to be gaining support from larger budget groups and the ever-growing middle class in Kenya. There is also a recognisable social consciousness among staff from INGOs and local groups alike to push back the ‘white saviour’ mentality.

Local actors in Kenya and beyond are beginning to understand the power and relevance they can wield. It is now up to international humanitarian actors to shape up and adopt the most transformative partnership models for this inevitable eventuality.