“Relief Operations: As Local as Possible, As International as Necessary”.

Alternative approaches to the ‘capacity-problem’.

1. Substituting rather than Supporting Local Capacities.

One of the alleged reasons why international relief agencies in most crises continue to ‘take over’ from local governmental and non-governmental actors, is the alleged ‘lack of capacity’ by the latter. That observation can be partially correct: Local agencies that can drive, coordinate and delivery assistance are themselves often affected by major natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, or the wars in Yemen and Syria. Overwhelmed local capacities justify international support. The problem occurs when the latter actually further undermines local capacities by hiring away all the best local people to boost their own, and by taking over the decision making. And when this situation persists not just for months but often for years. ‘Support’ for local capacities has become ‘substitution’. Is there really no other way?

2. Unpacking ‘Capacities’.

Generalised conversations about ‘capacities’ lead nowhere. What are the most frequent ‘capacity challenges’ that all relief providers face:

Meeting donor requirements:

The administrative requirements of bilateral and multilateral donors are notoriously complex, and in recent years have only become more demanding. Irrespective of how good you actually are ‘on the ground’, if you can’t write the proposals, budgets and track records according to the required formats and standards, you will not even be considered for funding. Writing skills are almost more decisive than your actual capacity to ‘do things’. Later you need to be able to meet the often diverse reporting requirements and be able to handle sophisticated evaluations.

Technical-thematic expertise:

If you want to register people in need or run nutritional, immunisation or water and sanitation programmes, you need the technical expertise. If you want to protect women from gender based violence, or the rights of children not to suffer the consequences of armed conflict, you need some thematic expertise but also much socio-political skill.

Scaling up – and scaling down:

Often large populations are affected, and larger relief operations are needed. Scaling up rapidly – increasing budgets and staff but also the management oversight over bigger operations- poses significant organizational challenges. Sometime in future, the situation will have stabilised and needs are less acute, or funding levels decline, and you will be faced with the reverse organizational challenge of perhaps equally rapidly scaling down.

Understanding and navigating the specific environment:

All environments have complex social, cultural, political and economic dynamics that are affected by the crisis and by the crisis response. We need to learn how the local populations see ‘the world’, assess the intended and unintended impacts of the presence and provision of assistance in that situation, and avoid attempts to benefit from it in ways that we do not find acceptable. We also need to build or maintain a broad network of collaborative relations as most challenges are too big and complex to be handled by one agency alone.

Operating with conflict-sensitivity:

Providing assistance in troubled environments comes with the responsibility at least not to put oil on the fire of existing tensions and conflicts, nor to create new ones. This cannot happen without the in-depth understanding of the ‘context’ mentioned and a close monitoring of intended and unintended impacts of your presence and actions.

Many international relief agencies have strong competencies in the first two capacity challenges: meeting donor requirements and technical-thematic expertise. Several have the organizational experience with rapidly scaling up and down, though others will also struggle. More often than not, they are not strong at understanding and navigating the specific context with conflict-sensitivity. Does that competencies picture justify the ‘substitution’ of local capacities?

3. Alternatives to Substitution.

Suppose the international relief industry operated very differently, and would always make ‘supporting local capacities’ a strategic objective next to saving lives and protecting basic rights. Here are three possible components of what such scenario might look like:

Seconding very qualified staff:

Rather than hiring away the best local people, international agencies second highly qualified staff to local organisations to boost their capacities where they are most challenged. They essentially have an advisory support role, on technical, thematic and managerial issues, but can lead on donor required paperwork if it includes also training and mentoring local staff. This is not as easy as it sounds: To bring real value, such seconded international staff needs to be very experienced, but also have necessary ‘soft skills’: strong interpersonal and cross-cultural skills, the ability to make the shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’, being a mentor more than a trainer, knowing how to deal constructively with perceived resistance etc. This is not different from the ‘technical assistance’ that is often provided to national governments. It also requires the local organisation to be willing to learn and develop, and make the most of this opportunity. And to accept the inevitable salary differentials, as long as the seconded person provides real value-for-money and does so with the required sensitivity.

Systematic and extended training:

Sometimes there simply will not be an existing local capacity or one with the potential to grow. Many years ago I joined the Afghanistan Vaccination and Immunisation Centre. It was set up by French doctors who, contrary to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in the few medical agencies then working in rural Afghanistan, believed that Afghans were capable of running something as technically complex as an immunization programme. From day one, they started a training center. Afghan doctors were further trained as trainers for this particular health operation. Afghans, recruited in Afghanistan and not the refugee camps, were trained as vaccinators and cold chain technicians. The best of those became supervisors, the best of those again became epidemiological surveyors etc. Others were trained on administration and finance etc. It was often too dangerous in various provinces for expatriates to monitor. But after prolonged working together, there was real trust in the Afghan supervisors and surveyors. In truth: I have never seen any other programme since, that so systematically invested in the development of local capacity from day one.

A two-way learning office:

Early on in every major crisis, an ‘independent’ learning office is established with carefully selected national and international staff. It’s role is to make available and understandable relevant information (standards, learning, methodologies...) from international experience, but also to capture the important learning of what it means to operate in that particular environment. Which is critically important to the international actors, who always struggle to find the ‘best fit’ for a given situation.

Some of the potential big benefits of such approach in which the international agencies do not overwhelmingly ‘go operational’ themselves would be:

  •  No ‘second tsunami’:

This is how local actors in some of the areas affected by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami described the overwhelming ‘wave’ of international relief agencies pouring in and taking over;

  •  Remote support’ rather than ‘remote management’:

At the moment ‘remote management’ is seen as the last and least preferred option that is entered into when the environment is too dangerous for ‘foreigners’ to go into. Such perspective reveals how prevailing ‘direct presence’ is as the default mode of operation. At the very heart of this issue is the question of ‘trust’. Are it only ‘internationals’ that can operate to the ‘required standards’, is only the direct monitoring and supervision by a ‘foreigner’ sufficiently trustworthy? Are we so unable or unwilling to identify trustworthy people among local populations? Do we really believe that all ‘foreigners’ are highly skilled, objective and trust worthy? Would the ‘foreigner’ in this crisis suddenly become less ‘trust worthy’ if s/he were acting in a crisis in her or his home environment? And does the person who is ‘local’ in her or his environment suddenly become more ‘trustworthy’ when s/he goes to work with an aid agency as an ‘expatriate’ elsewhere? 

  • Truly strengthening local capacities.

These three suggestions may seem fanciful ideas. They are indeed not ‘mainstream’ though they have been tried and tested on a smaller scale by more creative agencies in many places. How they would work out on a larger scale, we will not know until we try. But are we willing to change our habitual ways of doing and relinquish our center-stage positions?

First published on LinkedIn on 5 May 2016.