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COVID-19 & Localisation: No Turning Back?

24 April 2020

Local organisations constitute the frontline response in this pandemic. Their local knowledge, networks and relationships give them advantages in responding to the crisis, but they need to be supported with resources and information.

Localisation in the DRC. Catherine Alukunio (26) from Trócaire partner Caritas Wamba, in the village of Bahaha in Ituri province, DRC. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire

As international organisations, embassies and donors scale back their operations, evacuate international staff and restrict the movements of those left behind, I am reminded of 2014 when ebola emerged in West Africa.

As the region prepared to deal with one of the most challenging crises they had ever confronted, airlines stopped flying, many international staff left and those who stayed were restricted in their movements. At a time when international humanitarian assistance was desperately needed, it proved difficult to find staff willing to work in the region. What we are now observing as a result of COVID-19 feels strangely similar.

Comparisons have been made between the measures required to manage the transmission of ebola and the transmission of COVID-19 - social distancing, self-isolation, closing schools, and community messaging. One significant difference is the scale and the fact that whole countries have now ‘self-isolated’. Entry into and out of many states is now blocked. The staffing surge that is usually available during humanitarian crises is not possible. This means that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will need to be locally led.

 During the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone local agencies moved out of their traditional programming areas to take up new activities to support the ebola response. Local agencies wanted to rise to the challenge of supporting their communities. They responded whether there was funding available or not. The COVID-19 response is similar in nature. It provides enormous opportunities for the sector to honour its commitments to localisation.

The concept of ‘localisation of aid’ has been at forefront of humanitarian discourse since the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016. Signatories of the ensuing Grand Bargain committed to engaging with local and national responders to “reinforce rather than replace local and national capacities... in a spirit of partnership... where we all meet as equals”.

 As a partnership organisation, and a signatory to the Charter for Change, the issue of localisation is an important one for Trócaire. We are committed to moving towards greater localisation. We are also committed to contributing to localisation processes at a global level.

One of the key lessons that Trócaire observed during the ebola response was that the restrictions on international staff movements opened space for local organisations. Local organisations could play a role that would not normally have been open to them. 

A key feature of the ebola response was the role that communities played in mitigating the scale of the outbreak. Mobilising and engaging people and gaining trust was fundamental to managing the spread of ebola. This work was largely done by local organisations.

Local organisations responding to COVID-19. Grace Kortu Kargbo, Project officer from partner SEND-SL, demonstrates COVID-19 preventive measures to Maboikandoh Community in Koya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

The COVID-19 response provides similar opportunities for local organisations to lead the response. The traditional response model will have to adapt to the context. The changes may support the pathway to localisation: 

  • Humanitarian coordination mechanisms are dominated by international organisations. Local organisations face challenges getting a seat at the decision-making tables. The response may provide an opportunity for new humanitarian co-ordination mechanisms to emerge. These structures will be locally-owned and led.
  • Relationships between local civil society and government can be strained. Coordination mechanisms provide an opportunity for government to recognise the role of local agencies. They should see the advantages of a joined up response.
  • Existing community structures – women’s groups, farmers’ groups - can be used to support local responses. This will strengthen these structures.
  • International organisations are adopting innovative ways to work. Webinar trainings have replaced face-to-face.  Local organisations need access to reliable information and solid practical technical advice. This support is now being offered remotely. These new ways of working show we can continue business with a smaller global footprint, while creating greater space for local partners. It will be interesting to observe whether the ‘physical distance’ will also mean greater subsidiarity in decision making for local actors. Will international agencies try to hold onto decision making from a distance?
  • For local organisations to take the lead, they need to maintain funding. They must be able to continue paying staff and have access to finance. Funding that may have been allocated for other purposes should be reallocated to deal with COVID-19. Staff of local organisations should not lose their jobs due to suspension of projects or the delay in the approval of new grants.
  • The Global Humanitarian Response Plan Covid 19 recognises, on almost every page, that the response will be highly dependent on local and national actors. However, the plan does not articulate how this support will be delivered. Almost the entire allocation of funding within the plan is to UN agencies. The plan does not suggest how funding will flow from these bodies to frontline local actors. Effective partnerships between UN Agencies and local and national NGOs will have to be built if the plan is to deliver on its commitments.
  • UN Country-based pooled funds (CBPF) are a key funding modality for local and national organisations. Where they exist, these funds must be accessible to local and national agencies. Other funding modalities must be put in place to the benefit of local actors where CBPFs do not exist.
  • It is important to remember that local humanitarian workers are not immune to this virus. Instead of transferring the risk to local humanitarians, we must ensure they are supported  to protect themselves. They must also be provided with other support systems, particularly those delivering health services.  

It could be argued that localisation of humanitarian response to COVID-19 is now inevitable. This localisation should reflect a true spirit of partnership and complementarity. Local and national civil society organisations are a key capacity. They will no doubt constitute the frontline response in this pandemic. Their local knowledge, networks and relationships give them advantages in responding to the crisis. They need to be supported with resources and information so they can provide timely and effective response.

And this support needs to be sustained over time. When the crisis ends and when international travel resumes will international agencies and personnel return to take up their roles again? Will they re-occupy the spaces? Will they displace local agencies or will the relationship and power dynamic have forever changed?

This is a time for focus and solidarity. The effects of this pandemic may prove profound but the crisis also presents a major opportunity to invest seriously in local and national capacities.

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