Localisation of humanitarian responseA lesson from Nepal’s earthquake is that INGOs need to strengthen local actors instead of themselves
The earthquake and aftershocks of 2015 killed nearly 9,000 people, injured a further 22,300 and rendered millions homeless. In response to Nepal’s worst disaster in over 80 years, more than 400 humanitarian agencies contributed to the relief and recovery efforts, many of them new to the country and the context.
Humanitarian response is all too often characterised by large international responses. In contrast, the government of Nepal required international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to work through national and district-based partners in all but the initial relief phase of the response. As a consequence, international organisations that wanted to deliver an operational response did so for the early months of the response and then left the country. For those organisations committed to working in partnership with local NGOs, international teams were still initially expanded to strengthen management capacity and to provide technical assistance to their partners, but only for a comparatively short period. Many of these organisations were already in the country prior to the earthquake and had established partnerships with local NGOs.
In our recent study, “Opportunity knocks: Realising the potential of partnerships in the Nepal earthquake response”, we observed that pre-existing partnerships frequently offered examples of good practice: INGOs brought knowledge, training, trust and ambition which supported local NGOs to quickly scale up and to work more effectively with their international partners. In contrast, new partnerships were frequently more project-based, with local NGOs often confined to subcontracting roles as INGOs replaced rather than reinforced local capacity. A number of challenges were encountered by local NGOs, but it was the lack of equity in partnerships that was the most significant concern, and it has taken time for INGOs to start to address this.
Challenges of partnerships
Capacity development in humanitarian assistance remains a challenge. The need to rapidly scale up existing and new partnerships created a need to develop skills at the same time of delivering assistance. While innovative strategies were used to achieve this, there has been a tendency to focus on project-level capacity building rather than organisational-level capacity development. Though this has begun to change, it will take considerable time to make the shift.
Also, there is a perception among many local NGOs that INGOs have tended to prioritise investment in their own capacity over that of their partners. While this may be defensible in other contexts where INGOs have been operational, it is more problematic in the context of Nepal where the majority of programmes are being delivered by partners, with INGOs playing an oversight role.
At a district level, many local NGOs are now responsible for multi-million-dollar project portfolios which dwarf their pre-earthquake responsibilities. This funding is often comprised of a range of multi-sectoral INGO-funded relief projects. The associated need to accommodate project approaches and business practices of several INGOs was considered to be a significant challenge, particularly given the perceived failure of INGOs to coordinate with each other.
During the World Humanitarian Summit in June 2015, global humanitarian leaders acknowledged the importance of using and not replacing local capacity, and the earthquake response highlighted some encouraging signs of this with efforts having been taken to prepare for response in some of the districts, albeit with a focus on the Kathmandu Valley. However, the investment made in localising surge capacity had been limited, and after the earthquake the focus of many INGOs was all too often on strengthening their own capacity rather than that of their partners. As the response has progressed, there has been a growing realisation among many INGOs that there is a need to re-focus their attention on the need for long-term capacity strengthening. It is also evident that if local NGOs are to play a more prominent role in disaster response in Nepal, there will be an important need to prioritise funding for preparedness and surge capacity at both the district level and the national level.
In placing far greater responsibility in the hands of local actors to lead and deliver humanitarian assistance in Nepal, it could be argued that the earthquake response was a reaction to the imperative placed on localising response, but this is not true as the pre-eminence of partnership was largely a consequence of government policy rather than INGO preference. However, the Nepal earthquake has offered the international humanitarian community an opportunity to experience response as it is likely to be delivered more frequently in the future—led by the government and delivered by local organisations, with the international humanitarian system playing a support role.
The international humanitarian system and INGOs need to place far greater emphasis on identifying partners and investing in capacity development for surge and response in advance of crises. This will require a broader and deeper level of engagement with local NGOs outside of disaster response with a view to reducing the need for support when the crises are occurring. The focus of INGOs needs to shift from strengthening their own surge practices to those of local actors working at a national and district level, with a view to fostering a vibrant national humanitarian response capacity that can implement response both independently and in partnership. The lessons from the earthquake response must be used to transform the humanitarian system both in Nepal and globally, so that we can make the shift from international to national response.
Bogati is the Chief Executive of Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative; Featherstone is an international humanitarian research consultant. The authors are writing in a personal capacity