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Humanitarian organizations won’t listen to groups on the ground, in part because of institutionalized racism

Here’s what prompted the push toward localization — and what’s blocking this change

- June 7, 2021

Five years ago, the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit saw governments, U.N. agencies and international and nongovernmental organizations push for the localization of the humanitarian sector. The “Humanitarian Club” of Western governments and Western-based aid organizations had long controlled global assistance. But this approach largely excluded expertise and decision-making from local agencies and affected populations, including first responders with critical knowledge and experience working at the local level.

To reform the humanitarian sector, and save more lives, the 2016 summit enthusiastically endorsed making humanitarianism as local as possible, and as international as necessary. What prompted the push toward localization — and what’s happened since? Here’s an update.

How Western aid falls short

The demand for localization originated from two chronic and critical problems within the humanitarian sector. First, humanitarian aid has been relatively ineffective. Humanitarian work is often an uphill struggle, but post-emergency evaluation reports, from the December 2004 tsunami to Ebola outbreaks, provide ample documentation of the shortcomings of international action — and detail how greater inclusion would offer an important remedy.

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A second hurdle is that local agencies and affected populations increasingly view the Humanitarian Club as illegitimate. International agencies have considerable power — they have a preponderance of resources and decision-making authority. Local agencies are not equal partners but subcontractors, the hired help. Affected populations have little ability to articulate their needs but rather are expected to be grateful for what they are given. International agencies are unaccountable to local agencies and affected populations.

The demand for greater local participation by, and accountability to, local populations is not new, but it’s been on the rise as the Humanitarian Club has become more powerful. The World Humanitarian Summit emphatically promised to address these concerns.

Despite widespread enthusiasm for localization, however, the humanitarian sector has remained as unequal as ever. In 2016, less than 2 percent of international aid went directly to local agencies, and summit participants pledged to boost the figure to 25 percent by 2020. But the 2020 Global Humanitarian Report, in fact, shows the percentage is moving in the opposite direction.

Why is localization such a challenge?

My current research examines the power and inequality in the humanitarian architecture, produced by the entanglement of history, discourses and paternalism, and interests. Based on interviews, surveys and primary and secondary research, my research demonstrates that aid organizations in the West and global south provide different reasons for the failure of localization. In addition to standard self-interest, those from major international aid agencies worry that localization will do more harm than good until local aid organizations build up their capacity and know-how. In their view, a premature transfer of power would probably cost lives.

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International nongovernmental organizations also reference the specific conditions donors place on resources, including, importantly, financial accountability. Donors want assurances that the funding they provide goes toward addressing humanitarian needs, rather than lining the pockets of corrupt officials. NGOs point out that local officials and local groups may not have the administrative means to provide this level of transparency.

In contrast, aid organizations based in the global south see Western aid organizations falling short because they are protecting their organizational interests and budgets. They also claim if they lack capacity and competency then Western aid agencies bear some of the blame. Large humanitarian organizations hire away local talent, hold meetings without including local agencies, treat local agencies as hired help and devalue local knowledge in favor of the expertise of international aid workers. Southern aid agencies also point to institutionalized racism.

Humanitarianism has a race problem

Is there a link between racism and perceived competence? My interviews with staff from Western and non-Western organizations reveal the racialized discourse of competence. It is no secret that the concepts and goals of today’s humanitarian sector emerged from imperialism and colonialism, as Christian countries in the West aspired to civilize “barbarians.” Humanitarianism was explicitly about White Westerners attempting to save the “darker” races.

Times have changed, and the explicit racism of the 19th century steadily disappeared over the 20th century with decolonization and the ascending discourse of equality. Yet racism and discrimination did not disappear but rather became coded; in the humanitarian sector it shaped discussions about “capacity building” and measures of “competence.”

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Over the past few decades, the markers of competence in this sector have taken on a greater importance, as humanitarian organizations focused on knowledge, expertise and professionalism. Despite the scientific and neutral tone of these benchmarks, the humanitarian sector has racialized “competence” in at least two respects.

First, humanitarian agencies prioritize Western measures of competence, even if these markers have little objective effect on outcomes. That has put a premium on masters and certificate programs offered by Western universities — but these programs aren’t free, which means cost and proximity issues may discourage non-Westerners from applying.

Second, when non-Westerners gain these certifications, Western organizations may question their competence nonetheless, as anthropologist Adia Benton points out. In my research on the inequalities in international humanitarian efforts and the resistance to localization, staff members from organizations in the global south shared many stories of racism when dealing with Western aid agencies.

Southern aid agencies and workers of color have long pointed out how institutionalized racism within humanitarian organizations marginalizes experts and staff of color, but also hurts those in direct need of this aid. A few Western organizations, including Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, have now pledged to dismantle racism in their workplace culture and hiring practices. These discussions include whether and how racism accounts for the foot-dragging on localization.

The World Humanitarian Summit version of localization is probably dead. But the demand by aid agencies and governments in the global south for more resources, authority and power in providing relief to the affected populations in their communities is not. Localization is now being overtaken by demands to decolonize aid, and rethink ways to bypass or regulate the international aid framework. The localization path envisaged five years ago might be dead, but it is far from forgotten.

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Michael N. Barnett is a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. He is the author or editor of numerous books on humanitarianism, including, “Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism” (Cornell University Press, 2011), and most recently, the edited collection “Humanitarianism and Human Rights: Worlds of Differences?” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).