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WHS Five Years on National and local actors: Voices in the Humanitarian Wilderness?

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The May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit brought together 9,000 participants. They came from 180 Member States, included 55 Heads of State and Government, 700 NGOs and CSOs, of which 350 national and local ones, and 250 international ones, 350 representatives of the private sector, 130 representatives of the UN agencies, funds and programmes and other stakeholders including academia, faith-based leaders, and media. It was a culmination of an almost a two-years long multi-stakeholder process, costing millions of dollars.

Many more local and national CSOs took part in the regional consultations process, prior to the Summit. Globally, the largest number of organisations engaged in humanitarian action, development, peacebuilding, disaster risk reduction and climate change are national and local organisations. They engage on issues like gender-based violence, gender equity, education, protection, economic empowerment, climate change, poverty reduction, health education etc. As they mostly operate in their own societies, they obviously have a longer-term and ‘nexus’ perspective (unless and until international aid funding forces them into short-term project perspectives).

However, five years after the World Humanitarian Summit, with a firm commitment to include national and local actors “in a spirit of partnership” and irrespective of size and financial weight1 , they remain the most under-represented group in the humanitarian system, in decision making processes at local, national, regional, and international level.

There has been a much talk about inclusion and diversity in general. The Grand Bargain itself intends “to increase the range and diversity of partners willing to contribute”. Yet there is noticeable reluctance to open the space for meaningful inclusion and participation of local actors, including the affected populations. International agenciesretain the power to decide who participates, how often and when. Their representation in the Inter Agency Standing Committee for example, is only through international NGO networks. The hierarchical system includes permanent members from UN agencies, standing invitees who are all selected from International agencies and networks and from the office of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. It has and continues to be a struggle to get more national and local CSOs present, on equal terms, into e.g. Humanitarian Country Teams or even the Grand Bargain Workstream on Localisation.

The most frequently used excuse is that there are so many local actors, and even national and local CSO networks, that international actors cannot choose who might be a legitimate representative. But international actors should not be deciding on behalf of local actors. This is patriarchal behaviour, very common in the past but not fit for the present or the future. Nor should a requirement to be a formal signatory of the Grand Bargain be an entry criterion. The international aid system impacts on large numbers of national and local CSOs around the world: as impacted stakeholders, they have an intrinsic right to a voice. Isn’t that what international agencies preach and promote in the societies they intervene in?

However, when they are allowed at multi-agency tables, for example also in advisory committees to countrylevel pooled funds, national/local CSOs discover that majority of the time they have little ability to really influence decision-making. Theirs remains “a voice in the wilderness and a lone voice”.2 There are different reasons for this:

  • They may remain outnumbered by international actors or are certainly overpowered by them (notwithstanding all their proposals that talk about ‘empowering’ various types of local social groups).

  • The Northern jargon-led discourses do not speak to how national and local practitioners think and communicate, just as the energy, time and money devoted to conforming to the international relief sector’s way of operating seems a massive distraction to them, from what is needed in a more ‘real’ world.

  • Whether their observations, suggestions or concerns are captured in meeting minutes, depends heavily on who holds the pen, and who approves the final version.

  • The international aid system is no longer based on shared humanity and solidarity; rank and status play out strongly.