It is commonly acknowledged that all disasters start and end locally. Those who are first to respond in a disaster are primarily neighbors, community-based organizations, first responders and faith communities.

Governments and organizations delivering services are vital in providing immediate relief and setting the course for long-term equitable recovery in communities after a disaster or crisis. But these local humanitarian leaders and organizations are mostly under-resourced and underfunded. They are often hamstrung by an imbalance of power that puts funders rather than local leaders in the driver’s seat for making critical decisions about strategically deploying limited resources.

Locally-led humanitarian response is widely regarded as more effective, more efficient and more likely to improve accountability to and participation of those most affected by disasters and crises. The voices, knowledge and expertise of those most affected must be heard and respected in developing solutions. Local and national governments are ultimately responsible for overseeing an emergency response until it becomes too big for them to manage and outside assistance is needed. After the media, external nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and military and government officials depart, the ongoing recovery will usually continue under the leadership of local and national actors (LNAs). Or it should.

After large-scale climate or extreme weather-induced disasters or complex humanitarian emergencies that exceed a government’s coping capacity, there has been a history of response activities led by international development and humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations. This is part of a historical response from Global North countries*, described by Nigerian-American author Teja Cole as the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” Cole “coined the term to describe the power relations that privileged outsiders and their African agents try to enforce on the continent. The phrase, invented in response to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, points to the nexus of power lurking behind supposed Western do-gooding.”

To shift the power dynamics and move the nexus of control to LNAs, many in the international aid sector – including philanthropy and non-profit organizations – are adopting principles of localization and decolonization.

There is no single definition of “localization.” The Development Co-operation Directorate (OECD) definition says, “Localizing humanitarian response (or localization) is a process of recognizing, respecting and strengthening the leadership by local authorities and the capacity of local civil society in humanitarian action, in order to better address the needs of affected populations and to prepare national actors for future humanitarian responses.”

The concept of “decolonization” takes this a step further by recognizing the interconnections between power and resources (including aid) stemming from colonial constructs of the international aid system. There are many definitions of decolonization. One of these, from OpenTextBC, says decolonization “is the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies that claim the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches.” It includes dismantling the root causes and structures that have perpetuated historical discrimination and created power imbalances.

The question often arises, “How local is local?” In some protracted crises and major disasters, recovery efforts require coordination mechanisms and a greater presence of national, regional and international actors alongside the local community leaders. This does not mean that localization is not occurring — this occurs “in country” rather than as directed by an international organization from a distance.

In 2016, at the first-ever “World Humanitarian Summit,” the Grand Bargain was an agreement between donors and humanitarian organizations to change how aid is delivered to move power and resources into the oversight of local actors. Under the Grand Bargain, “Signatories are committed to making principled humanitarian action as local as possible and as international as necessary recognizing that international humanitarian actors play a vital role particularly in situations of armed conflict.”

CDP believes that aid should be as local as possible, but this can take various forms and offer different degrees of localization. Some examples of localized humanitarian and disaster assistance projects are those:

  1. Implemented by a local (often community-based) organization from the affected area within a specific region of a country.
  2. Implemented by a national NGO in the disaster-affected country.
  3. Implemented by a regional NGO with a presence in the disaster-affected country**.
  4. Implemented by an independent member affiliate of an international NGO (INGO), with separate registration and governance body in the affected country (effectively operating as an independent national NGO)**.

**specifically excluded from NEAR definition.

*Wealthier, more developed countries, compared to the low-moderate income countries often called the Global South. 

Key Facts

  • Local communities, leadership and actors on the ground know their context and needs best. By shifting power and resources to local and national actors (L/NAs), funders show that they value and respect the expertise, experience, role and contributions of communities affected by disasters.
  • Decolonizing philanthropy does not mean giving up on due diligence. To decolonize the way we donate and the way we view philanthropy is to relinquish control and trust the recipients of our donations. You should still do your due diligence to ensure your funds are going to reputable sources. But you should also trust your grantee partners as leaders and give them autonomy.
  • Funding to local and national actors in the international humanitarian assistance sphere decreased from 2017-2021. In 2017, $603 million (or 2.8% of funding) went to LNAs. While it increased to $824 million (3%) during 2020, likely because of COVID-19, it decreased to its lowest point since the Grand Bargain, with just $302 million (1.2% of funding) in 2021.
  • Localization is cost-effective and prevents deaths and injuries. Holistic, integrated and comprehensive approaches include local expertise and wisdom. Funders can increase impact through effective and efficient approaches with lower costs.

How to Help

Donors seeking to improve their localization and decolonization practices, grants and activities can:

  • Put affected populations at the center of the response by being proactive and researching organizations already on the ground that are deeply rooted and trusted in their communities. Make decisions with residents of affected communities in the lead. Redefine roles to build collaboration between INGOs, government and local actors.
  • Overcome potential barriers to funding locally by identifying and addressing them upfront and supporting capacity-strengthening. Legal restrictions, compliance and due diligence requirements can cause delays when you are unaware of them. Donors can prepare in advance to create a process to address these. If a funder is worried about a local organization’s scale, size, track record or capacity (legitimate or perceived), they can decrease risk and increase local humanitarian leadership capacity by coordinating with other funders, developing streamlined due diligence processes, and offering additional funding or technical assistance for capacity strengthening and sharing.
  • Alter internal grantmaking practices to simplify application and reporting processes. This should also include grantee reporting indicators. Global Giving’s streamlined application process and CDP’s simplified grantmaking application are two examples of funders who altered their practices based on a deep understanding of the complexities and challenges faced by local service providers.
  • Participate in more local pooled funds, engage in less earmarking and increase multi-year funding. These strategies have all been highlighted by signatories to The Grand Bargain as promising practices with less restrictive approaches to providing humanitarian aid to local communities. Individual philanthropies and collaborative funding efforts are wrestling with this issue. Big problems require innovative funding solutions.
  • Pay greater attention to long-term recovery and mitigation through durable solutions for refugees, social protection systems and risk reduction. These are all funding strategies with greater cost benefit and sustainability impact. Research has demonstrated that every dollar spent on mitigation saves a significant amount of money in recovery, dependent upon the type and location of the disaster.
  • Encourage collaboration between humanitarian and development actors. This magnifies the relief investments into long-term economic impact when local organizations are strengthened, supplies or commodities are locally sourced, and employment opportunities are generated by good planning and implementation of recovery efforts.
  • Improve joint and impartial needs assessment. This aids funders in supporting organizations as they make decisions, evaluate opportunities, respond to changing priorities and gauge impact. NEAR is the largest global network of local and national organizations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. They developed a series of metrics that will allow organizations to track and report local and national organizations’ progress in the humanitarian sector.
  • Exercise a lighter bureaucratic footprint through joint leadership roles. This takes the primary funder out of the sole convener, leader and facilitator role and transitions into the role of partner and participant. Through some grants, funders also direct the operations and activities. By creating shared leadership, funders can help build long-term capacity.
  • Adopt the mindset of an equitable partner and participant rather than a donor. Uphold humanitarian values of trust, self-determination and flexibility. Ensure communities are included and (co)lead program design, implementation and evaluation. Build local networks for knowledge sharing.
  • Build relationships with organizations before the onset of a crisis. During this time, you can carry out due diligence for them so you can work with pre-approved grantees when the crisis starts. You can also provide tools to local organizations for self-assessment and self-advocacy, and accompany local organizations through processes that assist in building capacity.
  • Explore options for financing in advance. Consider investing in intermediary funders with international knowledge and humanitarian grantmaking experience. Experiment with funding platforms and funding networks. Develop “workarounds” where the financial infrastructure is weak, uncertain or negatively impacted by an event. UN OCHA also oversees many country-based pooled funds (CBPF) that allow donors to “pool their contributions into single, unearmarked funds to support local humanitarian efforts. This enables humanitarian partners in crisis-affected countries to deliver timely, coordinated and principled assistance.”
  • Take the time to understand power dynamics – and when they’re unfair, work to shift them. Understanding localization and decolonization is for Global North organizations to do for themselves. Be alert to the realities of power and money in the humanitarian system. Do not expect Global South organizations to educate you. Build your knowledge base and change your practices by learning from disaster-savvy funders. If you are a disaster philanthropy foundation or corporate organization looking to localize your international disaster grantmaking, enquire about joining the Local Humanitarian Leadership Collaborative.

What Funders Are Doing

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, and under the administrative leadership of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), the Strengthening Local Humanitarian Leadership Philanthropic Collaborative brings together grantmakers committed to increasing the institutional capacity of these local partners worldwide. Their goal is to ensure that those on the ground can leverage local knowledge, history and connections to develop services compatible with the cultural, socio-political and economic realities of the communities they serve. You can read more about the organizations and their work here and learn about additional promising practices that worked for them as they built their localization practices.

Through various funds, CDP has supported several localization initiatives, including:

  • A $200,000 grant in October 2022 to the Wayuu Taya Foundation, which supports the Indigenous Wayuu people located primarily along the Guajira Peninsula on the Colombia and Venezuela border. Through this grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund, Wayuu Taya developed an entrepreneurial model for sustainable water solutions that will continue to generate income and allow them to build wells in remote indigenous communities, schools and healthcare centers along the border for years to come.
  • A $750,000 grant from the Turkey and Syria Earthquake Recovery Fund to Hayata Destek Dernegi/Support to Life in 2023 to work with earthquake-affected communities in Turkey to implement 90 community-identified projects through the survivor and community-led approach. A previous grant from the Global Recovery Fund in 2021 provided $433,327 to enhance the resilience of the disaster-affected and at-risk population in southern Turkey (wildfires) and the western Black Sea region (floods).
  • A $450,000 grant to Adeso from the COVID-19 Response Fund to increase access to water for drought relief and to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID in water-scarce communities in northern Somalia. The project will also act as a pilot whose findings will enable ADESO to develop a water social enterprise that will provide a long-term, affordable and more sustainable solution to water security, resulting in safe and clean water that will improve food security and livelihoods, aid in better sanitation and hygiene practices, and reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
  • In partnership with Google, CDP has twice funded YAKKUM Emergency Unit (YEU) in Indonesia. The first grant was for $121,500 to promote the psychosocial well-being of communities affected by the Mount Semeru volcano eruption in Indonesia and enable recovery by restoring livelihoods and strengthening community preparedness capacity for future disasters. The second grant of $100,033 was to strengthen the capacity of the communities affected by the earthquake and landslide in Cianjur District to improve disaster preparedness and accessibility of health and WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) services for most at-risk groups.

Shining Hope for Communities is a grassroots movement that catalyzes large-scale transformation in urban slums by providing critical services for all, community advocacy platforms, and education and leadership development for women and girls. In 2018, it was awarded $2.5 million through the world’s largest annual humanitarian award – the Hilton Humanitarian Prize – by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

In 2018, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded The New Humanitarian $334,319 to produce and disseminate journalistic reports analyzing and highlighting successes and challenges to localization and local responses to humanitarian crises.

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