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Published: March 30, 2020

Prioritising the local in localisation: LNGOs’ struggle against security threats

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As a forum, we understand that how well we can collaborate is directly related to how well we can protect the lives of aid workers around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions – travel restrictions, repatriation of international staff and the surge of xenophobia – has placed renewed attention on the importance of collaboration between international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and local or national non-governmental organisations (LNNGOs).

Before the virus, the localisation agenda had already taken centre stage within international spheres – particularly following commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. The motto, ‘As local as possible, as international as necessary’ became popular among thousands of aid workers who were eager to shift away from the colonial power dynamics of global aid.

But moving from talking about, to acting for, localisation revealed a challenging task. Transferring leadership – and therefore power – to local actors soon appeared more frightening and complex to some in the international community than they had anticipated. Indeed, the ‘risks’ of localisation are often mulled over during conferences and expert meetings, held in the likes of New York, Geneva, the Hague and other Western hubs.

What risks are localisation meetings focusing on?

The conversations surrounding the risks of localisation include terms borrowed from the private sector. Despite their current use in the humanitarian sector, ‘risk transfer’ – or the more ambitious ‘risk sharing’ – still carry their financial origins.

Most meetings discussing risk in relation to localisation focus on fiduciary, legal, compliance-based, reputational and political risks. These risks tend to reflect the priorities, concerns and fears of international actors seeking to localise in a ‘safe’ way. But what about the priorities of local actors?

This is not to say that local staff have no concerns about breaking financial regulations – but their priorities, rightly, may differ from those of their INGO partners. For example, what about security risks? For many working within LNNGOs, mitigating security threats to their lives and those of their colleagues comes before fiduciary preoccupations.

Presently, there are no numbers, or comprehensive records of incidents suffered by LNNGO staff. This includes physical and psychosocial injury, trauma, abuse and death. However, even without statistics, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the scope and gravity of the situation. A popular documentary released in 2019 – For Sama – gave viewers across the international community a grim insight into the reality facing Syrian medics responding to the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.

All too often, security risks are a missing theme – particularly where localisation is concerned. This is true of partnership arrangements with INGOs, international meetings with UN agencies, and grant requirements set by donors. Across the humanitarian sector, threats to local aid workers’ lives are not sufficiently discussed, prioritised, or budgeted for.

This is not a risk that the localisation agenda can afford to ignore. As locals are pushed to deliver assistance, often without adequate resources to do so, there is a disconnection between the life-threatening risks they take and goals of localisation. This shades the efforts made towards the agenda with a tinge of hypocrisy.

Giving over the talking stick – bringing security in

The dynamics of the localisation conversation must change. It starts with including local representatives as participants in the conversation, rather than being the topic of discussion. Far too many high-level meetings and conferences, intended to solve localisation issues, are held between white, western aid workers, or, at best, include a handful of ‘global south’ representatives. Having a transparent risk discussion requires listening to, and making a central space for, local perspectives.

Shifting to a local focus enables a completely different picture of risk, partnerships, and localisation. With the aim of improving global understanding from the local perspective, in 2019 EISF launched a research initiative exploring local perceptions of security risks, their management, and partnerships with INGOs. This investigation delves into the diversity and fluidity of relationships that LNNGOs engage in with actors at all levels, in addition to their various risk repercussions. It also reminds readers of how diverse LNNGOs are – from small, community-based organisations with limited knowledge about security risk management, to larger NNGOs developing innovative solutions to securing operations across multiple countries.

Without spoiling the upcoming paper (look out for its release later this year), the case studies and interviews ultimately reveal that LNNGOs feel ‘left on their own’ when it comes to protecting their staff. Most of them would gladly receive support, but realistically, they don’t expect much help from the global community. Building an understanding of what the starting reality is for partners, is, therefore, key to moving forward on localisation – collectively.

A shared aim and a shared responsibility

Local and international NGOs share the common aim of alleviating the suffering of people in need. Both share responsibilities towards these populations and both face security risks – some different, some similar. If there is a positive to having so many security needs, it is that there are many solutions to be explored to address them. Actors at all levels can and should do their bit to contribute to protecting aid workers.

At EISF, we too aim to do our part. Through our research project, we strive to challenge commonly held assumptions and to lay the foundation for informed discussion on localisation and security risks. Through physical and digital events, we seek to take the findings a step further by facilitating this discussion and exchange. EISF’s transition to global on the 9th April reflects our enduring belief in the importance of inclusive conversation, confronting varying perspectives in an effort to facilitate learning all around. If LNNGOs can learn from INGOs, the opposite is at least equally true.

As we expand our membership, we strive to make our resources accessible to a wider public of aid workers. While we have a collection of strategic pieces geared towards larger institutions, we take into account the realities and pressures faced by smaller organisations. Tools and guides like Security Risk Management: A basic guide for smaller NGOs, or Security to Go, have been designed to be easy-to-use resources for a variety of actors – not as ornaments to sit on a shelf in a headquarters office. We also seek to expand the translations and formats available for our tools. For instance, by collaborating with Disaster Ready, we’ve already produced a series of short mobile guides that provide busy field staff with quick and easy access to the basics of security risk management.

These initiatives and our transition to GISF are a recognition of the interconnection between INGOs and LNNGOs. As a forum, we understand that how well we can collaborate is directly related to how well we can protect the lives of aid workers around the world.

If you wish to engage with our efforts to support the security risk management of LNNGOs, please reach out to eisf-research@eisf.eu. If contacting after the 9th of April, please reach out to gisf-research@gisf.ngo.


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