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WHS – Views from the outside

WHS – Views from the outside

By Marc DuBois

[The World Humanitarian Hootenanny is over! Scorecards are popping up, from glowing to relatively unfavorable to stinging and everything in between. I will be giving my take on some key issues in this and forthcoming blogs. Like a friend not invited to a wedding, I can only offer my envious observations from afar.]

The Three NGOs We Need

The prominence of the localization agenda has been touted as a key WHS success, with the golden statue being awarded to the Grand Bargain. That recalibration of humanitarian financing includes the highly praised central commitment “to channel 25 per cent of financing to national and local responders as directly as possible by 2020.”

Will moving money from major donors to national governments and local NGOs contribute to empowerment? It might. But the politics of aid may not be so kind. Rule #1: there is no such thing as a free lunch. That point aside, localization seems to have been reduced to this ‘groundbreaking’ shift of funds, which may actually divert attention from a much broader local empowerment. To begin with, the management of this new financial windfall – the bureaucratization and proceduralization which it will require – seems poised to become the core business of the humanitarian sector over the next several years. Empowerment? Be careful of what you wish for (the subject of a future blog).

Looked at from within the sector, for meaningful localization to occur, the system essentially needs to empower people against itself. That, of course, runs contrary to the working of most systems, which is why the humanitarian sector has been characterized by such a grotesquely lopsided north-to-south grip on power. Beyond funding, how might the system contribute to local empowerment? With hundreds of NGOs essentially duplicating one another in terms of service delivery, here’s my list of the three agencies that have long been missing from the sector.

  1. Fundraising without Borders. Rather than tie local NGOs and civil society actors into the institutional funding mechanisms that have so effectively gutted the independence of Western NGOs, the aim of FWB would be to support (1) the development of fundraising within the local context and (2) entry into the well-established fundraising markets of the West.
  2. Image Rescue Committee. The IRC would function as a communications and promotions department for local response to crisis, be it civilian, NGO or governmental. The aim is to counter the skewed narrative delivered by the humanitarian sector – one that disempowers everything local by promoting a dated, warped tale of how they have been (heroically!) saved by the Western intervention.
  3. No-Mercy Corps. According to their own reports, international actors have worked for decades towards empowerment of the marginalized, poverty-stricken and oppressed populations of the global south. And yet not one has focused on empowerment against one of the most powerful and undemocratic forces impacting on their lives, the aid sector itself. Ending this Uncle Tomist free ride, NMC would work to create a set of local mechanisms or bodies (external to the sector) that build control and accountability over the aid sector’s interventions.

Three magic bullets to deliver on the promise of localization? Not at all. Perhaps more important than the potential of FWB, IRC and NMC to empower local responders and communities in the future is what their absence says about the past. Why is it that these organizations, designed and resourced to stand up to the humanitarian oligopoly, do not exist? Why did the humanitarian ecosystem** not give rise to these rather obvious aid functionalities? Because Grand Bargain or not, the architecture, incentives, power dynamics and culture of the aid system all push in a different direction. And that is one problem the WHS should have been busy addressing.

** Actually, FWB and NMC would better suit the development community, that has long missed out on opportunities to exploit the humanitarian field for its development gains – see here, here or here.

[Please see here for an addendum to this post, which puts some flesh on FWB, IRC and NMC].

This post originally appeared on Marc’s own blog, and is reprinted here with permission.

Marc DuBois works as an independent humanitarian consultant and analyst. Last year he published The Ebola Response in West Africa, Exposing the politics and culture of international aid for the Overseas Development Institute. Marc blogs regularly and can be found on twitter @humanicontraria. Prior to consulting, Marc spent 15 years at Médecins sans Frontières, primarily in humanitarian affairs, policy and advocacy, before becoming the Executive Director of MSF-UK from 2008 to 2014.

Featured image shows President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon inaugurating the WHS in Istanbul. Photo from Flickr.

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