On September 28, 2018, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, triggering a tsunami and liquefaction of land, which resulted in significant loss of life and displacement. The response to this disaster was notable because of a policy shift by the Government of Indonesia (GoI), which prohibited direct intervention by international aid agencies. All interventions were required to be carried out through Indonesian institutions and in coordination with the relevant Indonesian authorities.
This response took place about two years after the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, which included significant commitments to the “localization” of humanitarian aid. The localization of humanitarian aid is a loosely defined agenda to shift more power and resources towards humanitarian responders from crisis-affected countries. The discourse around the localization agenda includes many broad-based assumptions about the relative strengths and weaknesses of international humanitarian actors and actors from crisis-affected countries, few of which have been rigorously tested or explored. These include assumptions that “local” humanitarian actors are not able to be as principled or technically, administratively, and operationally proficient as international responders. The highly localized nature of the response to the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake provides a case study to test and examine some of the assumptions underlying the localization discourse.
In order to contribute to the evolving discourse on localization by drawing from the experiences of local humanitarian actors in the field, Save the Children Indonesia, Save the Children Denmark, and Feinstein International Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University collaborated on a study of the response to the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake. The primary research question was:
How do the experiences of humanitarian responders and affected communities in the aftermath of the earthquake in Sulawesi help us to affirm or counter some of the primary assumptions underpinning the discussion of the “localization” agenda? During August and September of 2019, the research team carried out 50 key informant interviews and focus group discussions with people who had firsthand experience of the response to the earthquake, all of whom were Indonesian and nearly all of whom worked for local and national entities.
The research found that the response to the 2018 earthquake in Sulawesi was, as all responses are, imperfect and challenged by resources, access, coordination, timing, favoritism, and communication.
However, there was not sufficient evidence to indicate that this response was more prone to these challenges because of its “localized” nature. The study found a humanitarian ecosystem in transition, with internationals learning to play different roles, the emergence of a larger class of nationalized nongovernmental organizations1 (NGOs), and a diverse set of local and national humanitarian responders.
However, the stories and insights provided by the study largely affirm the findings of other research into the Sulawesi earthquake: that the limits placed on international responders, while not perfect, were largely seen as a positive change across almost all categories of humanitarian responders. Significant work remains in ensuring that these localized humanitarian responses are more effective, inclusive, and equitable, but this response may indeed serve as a model for what future “localized” humanitarian responses may look like.
Recommendations from the research include the following:
• For Indonesian NGOs: develop partnerships and networks to facilitate mutual capacity strengthening and more rapidly deploy partnerships for future responses.
• For nationalized Indonesian NGOs: examine their institutional role to ensure a complementary (as opposed to competitive) approach to participating in localizing responses.
• For international NGOs (INGOs) and agencies: understand the nuances and distinctions between different types of “local” actors, and invest in identifying, vetting, and building trust with potential partners in disaster-prone areas before (or, rather, between) crises to ensure a timely and effective partner-mediated response.
• For the Indonesian government: ensure policies governing actors in humanitarian responses are communicated in a clear and timely manner and invest in decentralizing coordination systems.
• For policy makers and researchers: Move beyond the local/international binary to explore the nuanced identity of humanitarian responders. Question the assumptions/ definitions around “local” humanitarian actors’ ability to adhere to humanitarian principles.