Covid-19 is an opportunity for change. Flaws in the way risks are managed between local and international partners have been exposed by the current crisis. Building on lessons learned from the research I oversaw at GISF (which investigates local NGOs’ perspectives on risk transfer, partnerships and security risk management),+ here are three ways to make risk-sharing more than just an aspiration for the localisation agenda.
- Understand the risks – the importance of listening
The simplest – although often neglected – step to understanding the risks faced by local aid workers is to listen. GISF’s upcoming research shows that conversations about risks are often driven by international interests, centre on fiduciary and legal risks, and leave little space for locals to express safety or security concerns. However, the repatriation of many international staff due to Covid-19 has led many international organisations to be more attentive to local realities.
In a recent conversation with Armstrong Maina, Global Security Manager at Population Services International (PSI), I was reminded that the virus is only one among the many safety risks staff deal with. In Kenya, floods have claimed more lives than the virus. Recent terrorist attacks against relief activities in Afghanistan and Sudan demonstrate that the pandemic only adds to the many security risks already jeopardising aid workers’ lives. While global attention focuses on Covid-19, listening to local actors is essential to understanding that a risk-sharing response must include all of the harmful threats that local actors encounter. The pandemic presents an opportunity to address existing gaps in partnership arrangements and develop communication systems that facilitate open discussions of all risks between international and local partners.
- Make joint decisions about risks – acknowledging power imbalances
Sharing decision-making power is the second step that international partners need to take to move towards sharing risk. Local aid workers must be empowered to make informed decisions about the risks they take to deliver programmes. The risks posed by Covid-19 motivated local actors to ask for some programmes to be suspended or modified – it is crucial that international partners respect those limits. Where organisations show inflexibility or threaten to remove funding if operations are interrupted, the fear of losing their livelihoods may push local staff to accept unreasonable risks to continue operations. Risk-sharing implies a conscious – rather than coerced – acceptance of risks. This requires partners to discuss on an equal footing how best to approach them and to have the option to say no.
- Provide sufficient resources to manage risks – enabling concrete change
If a decision is made to continue programmes with their associated risks, then local actors should have access to sufficient resources (material and otherwise) to manage them. Sharing risks demands flexible funding and strategic, long-term thinking. As a result of rigid budget structures, short-term grants, and an absence of dedicated funding for safety and security risk management, many aid organisations, especially local and national ones, are now struggling to adapt their programmes and ways of working to the pandemic.
John Ede, president of the Ohaha Family Foundation in Nigeria, saw programmes collapse after the departure of international staff, because INGOs had ‘imported’ foreign resources rather than supporting local capacity. Budget restrictions and short-term commitments mean that many NGOs are now left unable to protect their staff and the communities they seek to help – which means they are unable to fulfil their humanitarian mandate. International partners must move away from ‘emergency thinking’ and stop investing in quick fixes that create weak structures, unfit for the ever-changing nature of the humanitarian environment. Strengthened communication systems, shared decision-making and adequate resourcing, are all key to enable local and international partners to move towards equitable risk-sharing.
The final ingredient is trust. Local aid workers are rising to the challenges generated by Covid-19, despite limited resources. Many national and local aid workers see the crisis as ‘their time to shine’ and a way to show what they are capable of. For international actors, now is the time to recognise and trust local skills. To truly share risk and rebalance power arrangements, local actors must have opportunities to collaborate on an equal footing. Such change is not only ethical, but necessary, given that overcoming the pandemic and future crises require all hands on deck.
Léa Moutard is Research Advisor at the Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF). She oversees the development of original research along with tools and good practice guides to help humanitarian organisations managing security risks.