The need for locally led humanitarian response in a time of global crisis


The Covid-19 response highlighted the challenges the aid sector faces when it comes to being accountable to people affected by crisis. Local and national humanitarian and development organizations were often best placed to respond as they work alongside the communities they serve, while many international organizations were forced to look at new models of operating. What lessons have we learned? And can the sector keep up this momentum to change the balance of power post-pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic spread rapidly around the globe in 2020, forcing humanitarian responders to find new ways to deliver assistance in the face of global travel bans, social distancing and restrictions on individual movement within communities.

Against this backdrop of disruption, partnering with locally led humanitarian and development organizations - positioned at the forefront of delivery - has been critical for international actors seeking to deliver services in communities particularly hard-hit by this new virus.

What did successful national/international partnerships look like during the COVID-19 response? Could this be a period of accelerating change to a system which has been too slow to give greater recognition, resources and power to local actors?

Good practice partnerships

At HNPW 2021, in the context of the “Localization is imperative for Accountability to affected people” session, coordinated by CHS Alliance, national NGO representatives shared their experiences of pandemic partnerships that strengthened accountability to affected people.

In Kenya, ASAL Humanitarian Network partnered with Oxfam. Ahmed Abdi of ASAL highlighted how the trust the network had built up over 25 years had laid the groundwork for local partners to have autonomy and design, manage, implement an appropriate and timely response to Covid-19 and food insecurity through supporting 50 farm groups (more than 2500 farmers) and undertaking community perception tracking.

In Nigeria, a partnership between Slum and Rural Health Initiative Network (SRHIN) and Translators Without Borders (TWB) looked at the ingredients for effective communication. Miracle Adesina shared the importance of treating people with honour, simplicity of language, the use of infographics. The project first developed clear messages in English and visual graphics. The content was then translated into 50 languages to make sure it was accessible within different communities, so that life-saving information reached people in a timely and effective way.

In Syria, Humanitarian Relief Association (IYD) and World Vision worked together to strengthen their accountability systems. Hamza Alobid of IYD shared how consultation with affected communities was improved, using channels such as WhatsApp and voice notes that were accessible to local people, and the use of a cash distribution app which collected complaints and feedback from users.

These partnerships benefited from including responders who were closer to the people who have been affected by crisis. Local organizations typically include members who live in or near the communities they serve, and who speak the same languages and understand the cultural contexts they are operating in. Trust was already established among the national organizations, which is an essential ingredient for accountability.

Beyond partnerships, has the global pandemic really shifted power towards local NGOs?

The role of standards in accelerating localization

In April of 2020, as the pandemic was still rapidly unfolding CHS Alliance held a webinar on emergency ethics and accountable aid. Panelists discussed how the Covid-19 crisis had produced many opportunities for accelerating the localization agenda. There was optimism that the time had come for aid agencies to get behind local networks and mutual aid schemes, as communities defined their own responses.

Hugo Slim of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights asked whether this pandemic is a great disruptor that could reshape and produce new power structures within the humanitarian system.

More than one year on, it remains to be seen whether the balance of power in humanitarian response will shift towards the local, but we do know that standards are more important than ever.

As a core common standard, the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) - with its Nine Commitments to people affected by crisis – is a tool to ensure aid organizations are accountable to communities. It addresses power dynamics, driving improvements for all organizations, irrespective of size or geography. How this standard is applied and used by national NGOs matters if we are to succeed in our goal of putting accountability to people at the heart of our work.

The lessons we have learned from the Covid-19 response must not be lost. When trust and equity is established in partnerships between national and international actors, the quality and accountability of assistance is improved. The application of international standards, such as the CHS, reinforced the systems of national organizations and made them stronger. As a sector, it’s imperative that we listen to and value the leadership of the local and national organizations who are closest to the people we serve.