Decolonizing aid—the future of localization?

Decolonizing aid—the future of localization?

By Mai Nagabayashi

From the desolating famine crisis in Somalia to the war in Ukraine and, more recently, the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, humanitarian disasters are becoming more and more prevalent every year. As crises are ongoing, local first responders, be they neighbors, friends, kin, or local community, are on the ground most quickly, are aware of cultural differences, are more cost-efficient, and are more likely to “stick” around for the long haul than foreign aid workers. If this is the case, why is “localization” at stake, and who are the specific actors involved? And how do we best support “localization” efforts?

Localization by definition

The terms “localization” or “local actors” in themselves are, by definition, contentious. According to Daniel Maxwell et al., it is difficult to define “localization.” However, overall it means to include local actors in the international humanitarian space and to center local leadership in humanitarian response practices.

Who, exactly, are “the locals”? Are they the national government or the local government? Are they on-the-ground formal or informal organizations? The broader segments of society? Indeed, localization  has been a buzzword since the Grand Bargain, which was adopted at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016 to expand local actors’ access to international humanitarian funds, partnerships, coordinating spaces, and capacity building. 

Localization by numbers

Despite the broad support for localization in the context of humanitarian response, funding for localization efforts has been far from what was agreed upon at the WHS in 2016. Even after accounting for sub-grants and sub-contracts, local actors only receive roughly 3% of the tracked international humanitarian funding, which falls well short of the Grand Bargain target of 25%. Local actors tend to get the shorter end of the sticker. The summit’s ambitious goal fell short for three various reasons:

  • Aid tends to be anchored in neocolonial systems, allowing Western donors to maintain power and influence over recipient countries without giving them much autonomy on operationalization and implementation efforts for programming. 
  • Aid programming tends to focus on upward accountability through donor compliance and less downward accountability on the positive intended impact of the humanitarian response to the targeted population.
  • Even when the motivations and reasoning behind humanitarian response are sincere, the notion of competition still exists between INGOs with local organizations due to cultural barriers and preexisting prejudices of “us versus them.”

The 25 percent commitment that was agreed upon at the 2016 summit is still used as an indicator and measurement to track the progress of current localization efforts. Quantifying progress by numbers, though practical, is also counterproductive in measuring a fundamental change in impact on the lives of a targeted population.

Localization by context

Much of this discussion could be analyzed at a broad level by looking at numbers and metrics; however, localization efforts vary by context and region. In Bangladesh, a myriad of humanitarian emergencies exists – from the ongoing natural disasters to the current Rohingya refugee crisis. At the same time, Bangladesh also encountered an enormous influx of forcibly displaced Rohingya population, many of whom, as Oxfam reports, encountered torture, arbitrary detention, and intimidation, while women and girls were subjected to gang rape and forced labor. In order to tackle the crisis, Bangladesh has developed a comprehensive disaster risk reduction and preparedness program by implementing partnerships between the Bangladeshi Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief and various other local humanitarian networks and structuring a robust disaster management response.

The Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh sought a collaborative effort between the Bangladesh Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and local women’s organizations to advocate for their rights, child protection, and livelihood support. However, these efforts fell short due to funding challenges. According to UNHCR, as part of the 2022 Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, more than $881 million was planned to be given to Bangladesh by international donors, yet the fund fell short at only $635.1 million. Additionally, UN Agencies and international organizations were also major recipients of these funds to operationalize the response plan. However, there is no robust system to track the flow of money in Bangladesh’s humanitarian efforts.

Comparatively, while humanitarian efforts remain intrusive in Bangladesh, localization efforts in Kenya are relatively “hands off.” As Avery Burns shared in her study, the government of Kenya held a mostly laissez-faire attitude toward the refugee population from Uganda in the early 1990s. Therefore, the Kenyan government has diverted control of efforts to UNHCR. She claims that the overwhelming number of refugees entered Kenya at once, making it difficult for the government to provide any humanitarian assistance; therefore, much of the efforts have been executed by INGOs on the ground. 

Decolonizing aid: the future of localization?

While there is a majority of support for aid localization, the funding and commitment are still relatively limited by signatories of the Grand Bargain. So, what does the future hold for localization? Localization is here to stay in the context where large international organizations serve as supporting roles for local organizations, allowing those on the ground to drive the implementation process. To best support localization, funding, capacity building, and equitable partnership are keys for sustainable programming; therefore, accountability for any execution must also be upwards and downwards. From the famine crisis to the uncertainties of war, the number of humanitarian crises continues to grow every year. As stated by Rory Downham, director of Bioforce, “to achieve the power shifts required for localization, organizations need to be more open to piloting different structures and models for managing work and relationships.” This starts with the transparency and empowerment of local actors.


Mai is a second-year MALD student at Fletcher, studying international development and human security. She is involved in PRAXIS to broaden her understanding of the human security approaches in development programming and practices.

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