24 April 2014 - Today, humanitarian actions are often associated with international NGO’s. Names like the Red Cross, Save the Children - and of course the United Nations. When we see humanitarian assistance on the news we see established relief camps, marked vehicles, special crates and large signs indicating areas where help is being given. Yet, behind these lie a multitude of local NGO aid agencies, often overshadowed or pushed aside by their larger counterparts.
It seems the giants have forgotten their roots. Nearly all aid agencies started local: Save the Children started out small in the UK, and a few French doctors who believed in helping those in need, created Doctors Without Borders.
But an increase in size also entails an increase in shadow. Today, for instance, large NGO’s seek to professionalize with certifications and standards, at the same time making it harder for small local organizations to maintain a presence.
Most international NGO’s are connected together through the UN’s cluster system, amongst others. In this system agencies working in a particular field coordinate together to provide responses. But the main drawback of this system is that it functions through the security of UN bases and compounds, making access for local groups difficult. Guarded UN compounds exist sometimes in conflict zones where humanitarian personnel can become targets.
The first challenge for smaller, local NGO’s lies in being allowed to enter the premises. And once they’ve entered – if they enter - language barriers, or, for instance, lack of access to the Internet often means local agents are left out completely.
Sometimes, however, the question of the scope of the disaster does become a factor. Following the Haiti earthquake, local agents were overwhelmed. A massive influx of donations required the structures large NGO’s had in place to correctly manage the distribution of resources. In other cases such as in Mali, local agencies were not the best placed to deliver aid because it would have been seen as taking sides either for or against the Tuaregs. Fatou Mbow, who has worked for various aid agencies in West Africa, has seen the limitations first hand. “In CAR, it was just a conflict with no government, no civil society, just four million people being invaded by all these people interested in their diamonds”, she explains to IRIN News. Thus an international response was indispensable as no local actors were on site.
Recently however, international NGO’s have been re-evaluating their relationship with local organisations. Now there is even a name for the effect of crowding out: the “Day Four Effect”. “Day Four is probably the crowd-out moment,” said David Hockaday, from the consortium of British humanitarian agencies known as the Start Network, “and I think it's interesting that there's almost a lack of acknowledgement of what happens in the first 72 hours.”
The tension between international and local is becoming more visible as middle income countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines are struck by disasters, but have an independent capacity to deploy humanitarian aid. Evidence points to humanitarian action being more effective when supplied by national or local actors, who can coordinate and prepare before the disaster even happens.
So, are the days numbered for Western global aid giants? Perhaps not yet, but a devolution of power and a shift from the international to local level is a recipe prescribed by an increasing number of experts. Providing humanitarian aid should no longer be about the survival of the biggest.
Source: IRIN News
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