Are we listening enough to local voices?

Guest author: Tim Boyes-Watson, Executive Director, Mango

I’ve taken a couple of days to reflect on what I heard at the WHS and what I didn’t hear.  My first reflection is that local voices were not prominent enough and that the WHS process did not listen to them enough.  My second reflection was that those with most power chose either not to come, or not to use their powerful voices to call for the kind of revolutionary change that is needed.  I hope, but am not yet sure, that the future echoes of the summit will create an opportunity for deeper and more equal partnerships between international and local organisations, as well as greater diversity of collaborations which will promote innovation.

Local Voices

The odds were stacked against being able to hear local voices.  Local actors were in a minority of participating organisations and were largely only able to attend the side-events.  Relatively few panels in the side events featured representatives of local organisations and it was hard for them to get opportunities to contribute from the floor too.

Funding for national and local organisations

Yet the most exciting outcome from the summit in my view was the commitment made in the Grand Bargain to: “Achieve by 2020 a global, aggregated target of at least 25 per cent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible to improve outcomes for affected people and reduce transactional costs.”  This was the big success of the consultative process leading up to the summit and campaigns led by Adeso and Charter4Change.

However, what I heard from local voices at the summit was that this needed to be about more than just getting a more proportionate share of money to local organisations.

  1. Degan Ali spoke powerfully about looking at what happens to power and risk, as well as money.  For too many local NGOs they get all the risk, not enough money and almost no power.  If the money provided is too inflexible and does not take into account the local NGO’s strategy and their analysis of local needs, then all the Grand Bargain will be is sub-contracting.
  2. I heard several Local NGOs speak about the inadequate cost recovery and lack of flexibility offered by donors and international NGOs, which means local organisations have insufficient funds to maintain their organisations, let alone develop their organisational capacity.  Fair overhead recovery and tracking this is included in the Charter4Change, but is not explicit in the Grand Bargain.  Mango’s cost benchmarking study has shown that smaller NGOs usually have higher % overhead rates.  We need to make sure the Grand Bargain does not provide more money but with inadequate or capped indirect cost rates, as otherwise local NGOs will actually be even more exposed to the “starvation cycle” rather than gaining what they need to develop their organisational capacity.
  3. Peter Ochieng from the Uganda National Association of Cerebral Palsy spoke passionately about how we shouldn’t think that getting more international money to local NGOs is always the best solution.  In his view the best projects he saw where when the local community raised modest amounts of funding for projects.  Then both the organisations and communities work together to get the best possible value for money, compared to what happens in externally funded projects.  This made me wonder if the revolution we need in cash-based programming should be extended, so that community members could actually fund the local NGO projects they need as well as using cash to meet their own individual needs?

Local Capacity Development

There was a great session where I heard about how Crescendo International worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to share a global survey of humanitarian response workers, whose key findings were as follows:

  1. Local and national organisations have a realistic understanding of their current capabilities and want to be able to do more.
  2. Anger is building among local and national organisations in the humanitarian sector over:
    a. The limited amount of money that actually goes to local organisations;
    b. A lack of transparency in financial arrangements of subcontracting;
    c. An absence of influence at the tables where decisions are made and a lack of support for building the skills to allow them to have more influence.
  3. Current support for capacity building is not responsive to actual needs.  Local NGOs are saying they would prioritise fundraising, governance, leadership and finance, rather than ‘programme-related’ skills.  The survey also suggested that local NGOs prefer peer to peer training and mentoring as more effective ways to develop their capacity.

This analysis agreed with something I heard in another session from Degan Ali, who said “We don’t need any more technical training in things like SPHERE standards, we need things like financial training and help putting in new systems.”  I hope work like this survey and the much needed new NEAR network will create a variety of ways that capacity development can be provided locally to meet the real needs of local organisations.  As Mango, we are committed to listening and building provision of what is most required, and that is at the core of the commitments we have made as part of the WHS process.

Voices of the powerful

As was feared, the most powerful voices did not even turn up to the summit, making it very unlikely that progress could be made on key aims around conflict prevention and upholding international law.

It will be important for NGOs to analyse what the powerful voices that did attend the summit actually committed to. NGOs will also need to mobilise and collaborate to hold the powerful to their commitments and monitor implementation.

Despite the many side-events promoting the greater use of cash programming, the Grand Bargain statement on cash was the sort of pathetic phrase that often emerges from a process where consensus was not achieved: “Aim to increase use of cash programming beyond current low levels, where appropriate. Some organisations and donors may wish to set targets.” The failure of the most powerful donors to make any measurable commitment to increasing cash programming shows how much they still cling to power and are afraid to trust local actors with the flexibility to respond to their own needs.

No monitoring process has been specified for the Grand Bargain and the 25% target for local funding described above. I attended the Grand Bargain launch event and was concerned that not one of the leaders who presented this had the courage to be the one to commit to the 25% target in front of the cameras. There have been too many previous occasions on which groups of donors commit to actions but do not create mechanisms to hold each individual donor accountable. We need to push for concrete and measurable targets for each individual donor as part of the Grand Bargain process as well as transparent tracking mechanisms.

What will the future echoes of the World Humanitarian Summit be like?

The leaders of many international NGOs did come to the summit and appear to be concluding that it was broadly positive. I am not sure we have the evidence to conclude that yet. The greatest legacy of the process and the event appears to be a growing consensus around the need for localisation. It is right that Local NGOs should seek to take much more power within the humanitarian system in a world where civil society space is under more and more threat.

However, to really hold the powerful to account for making the changes needed, the whole global civil society movement will need to work together: north, south, east and west. We also need to develop new collaborations with business and social enterprises so that diversity promotes greater innovation. Charter4Change, the NEAR network and Connecting Business Initiative are examples of new collaborative networks that have emerged from the summit process. As we seek to ensure more resources are available locally and can be used more flexibly, let us not get caught in a trap where we let those with most power use their control of resources to divide us. The increasing proportion of funding which will go to local organisations should not create a conflict over resources, but an opportunity for deeper and more equal partnership.

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