How can we make sure Covid-driven localization in aid endures after the pandemic?

Lots of people are hailing a surge in pandemic-driven ‘localization’ as one of the silver linings of the current grimscape. The argument goes that lockdowns have suspended aid’s standard ‘white men in shorts’ operating model, allowing local organizations to expand into the space, run their own responses, (eg to humanitarian emergencies) and generally take more control of the aid process – something long promised but seldom delivered. This post captures that process in the Pacific islands (some excellent further Pacific research by the Humanitarian Advisory Group here).

But will it last? Is this a localization blip, after which things return to business as usual, or a tipping point to something better? And what could be done now to ensure that it is the latter?

This was the subject of a call today with Josie Pagani, who run’s New Zealand’s Council for International Development. CID and NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are having a conference in a couple of months on the impact of Covid on aid, and Josie wants me to contribute to a discussion on Covid as a ‘critical juncture’. So allow me to pick your collective brains.

The question: how do you take the sparks of change from the pandemic and light a fire that changes the way aid functions long after Covid is history?

What can easily happen in these moments is that everyone assumes the current consensus is permanent, issues ringing declarations of support, moves money and power around a bit, but then in a couple of years other pressures and priorities emerge, and momentum recedes. So if consensus and good intentions are not enough, what might advocates and institutional engineers put in place now to ensure localization endures?

Some random ideas:

Laws: laws make ideas permanent and enforceable. Lots of aid purists poured scorn on the UK’s law that enshrined 0.7% of Gross National Income as a minimum for its aid, arguing that quality mattered more than quantity. But it ensured that aid remained a priority even as other events intervened, and when the law was eventually overturned, we saw a plunge in both quantity and quality. So how about laws or other binding commitments to channel X% of aid through local organizations?

Funding Rules: Some bits of NZ aid (especially the big bits) are only open to NZ-based organizations, often with Pacific partners in a subordinate ‘partnership’ relationship. That could be flipped so that bids and applications have to come from a Pacific-based organization, either alone or with a subordinate NZ partner.

Full spectrum localization: it’s not enough to just redirect the money, if recipient organizations are then weighed down with massive ‘due diligence’ reporting requirements by the donors. Power and capacity needs to be redistributed right across the spectrum of aid-related activities.

Reporting requirements and transparency: Even if you stop short of laws, you can institutionalise moments and processes of accountability – e.g. MFAT commits to report once a year on the level of localization of its aid response, and publish the underlying data.

League Tables: how about a league table comparing levels of localization between donors, and creating pressure for a race to the top? (If it already exists, my bad – please send links.)

Creating constituencies and advocates for permanent change: set up bodies to promote localization, or create jobs with the same aim, and you put in place voices that will keep pushing long after the topic has ceased to be fashionable. Councils of Pacific recipients; support for the influential Diaspora voice or other actors in New Zealand; posts at MFAT. Similarly jobs outside the aid sector – how about a department or chair of localization studies at a major university?

What might stop it?

Shifting norms: how do you shift behaviours and norms – e.g. make it unthinkable to publish research or organize an event or a panel on aid without scholars/speakers from the region? Create a satirical crowd-sourced event along the lines of the very effective manel site?

In addition, while Localization is in the spotlight, it is worth thinking about the potential blockers of change – my customary formula for unpacking the forces of inertia is to look at the overlapping roles of ideas, interests and institutions. How might these forces start pressing for a return to Business as Usual and how could they be prevented from doing so?

Other suggestions?

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9 Responses to “How can we make sure Covid-driven localization in aid endures after the pandemic?”
  1. Cynan

    Hi Duncan,

    Let’s talk about the funding rules and full spectrum localization points above. Everything else aside, INGOs sub-grant to NNGOs rather than the other way around because ultimately it is the former who can afford the deep pockets to pay for disallowed costs, if push comes to shove. So here are a few tangible actions on that.

    Funding bodies include in their localization policy that when providing a sizable grant directly to a smaller NNGO, they will +50% or double their standard indirect cost rate. This will substantially improve the ability of the NNGO to bear the inherent financial risks. And if they deliver the major grant cleanly, and don’t need to pay substantial reimbursements? Excellent, you just released that pot of unrestricted for that NNGO to develop further. After (3? 5?) years of successful action, then MFAT can slide this additional indirect cost rate downwards… if they must.

    Alternate approach: funding donors hold NNGOs in full compliance with their standard donor regs, but if penalties/repayments are incurred, then they are discounted. A $10k compliance error by an INGO is repaid at the full freight; a $10k error by an NNGO with a balance sheet below $100k is paid at say 20% of the full charge.

    What will not work: asking INGOs to be subgrantees to NNGOs, but in an arrangement where they overtly or covertly take on ultimate financial risks for the whole consortium. Because that will inevitably see them reaching in to exert tight financial monitoring and controls, and the power dynamic is back to square one. Also unlikely: getting donors to do away with their overload of due diligence requirements. Alas, I’m just resigned to this ever ratcheting back to any degree.

    This is not the whole solution. But without this being part of the solution, there will likely just be a trail of financially messed up NNGOs and localization going nowhere fast.

  2. Hi Duncan, two thoughts. 1) some of the very practical ideas from our decolonising global health report might help, most are applicable to broader development spend and also touch different aspects from research to procurement by the big verticals – see ; 2) make sure Josie asks several (not just one) “local” organisation representatives to join the discussion and share their thoughts on what next. That would be a great step in itself.

  3. Duncan Green

    This from Chris Roche:
    a couple of other ideas:

    a) More profound reflection by the sector on identity, different forms of knowledge and the links to day to day practices and how these embody structural drivers of change as Lisa Denney and I argue in Paper Three of this document: COVID-19: An opportunity to localise and reimagine development in the Pacific? We think this is particularly important for NZ and Australia given their indigenous populations, and of course NZ has made greater strides on this front than Australia!

    b) Being clearer about what the characteristics of locally led progressive change in the Pacific looks like by looking at initiatives largely outside the formal aid system, and using that to establish clearer means for local people and agencies to hold governments and donors to account, as we argue in this paper Roche, C. Cox, J. Rokotuibau, M. Tawake, P. & Smith, Y. (2020). The Characteristics of Locally Led Development in the Pacific, Politics and Governance, Vol 8:4

  4. Masood Ul Mulk

    I can see two issues with this. Firstly not be too ambitious. Lets begin in a small way. Make it obligatory on all international organisations to acknowledge by name and numbers, how much a local organisation contributed to the delivery of Aid. This may not be very visible if hundreds of tiny local organisations are delivering Aid. What if the entire warehouse operations or delivery of NFIs are carried out by a few large local organusations in a big emergency but still find no acknowledgement. I leave it to your imagination to understand why that happens.
    Secondly, in addressing this question you cannot ignore the economy of Aid back home. Many times you have good local organisations with capacity to deliver Aid in the crisis area. But Aid will be routed to them through a home based organisation to prevent a furore there. This process adds no value to the quality of Aid but satisfies a constituency back home

  5. Stuart Lawrie

    Have a think about sustainability and accountability. At sub capital level the question I’ve most been asked by donors recently is “ how do we stop paying for this”, not „how do we localise aid.“ For me this means thinking more on localisation as a transfer to functional local government services, who could be sustainable (after donors move on) by having the authority and ability to raise tax and charges. If it was democratic or had democratic structure it could also be accountable (and represent their communities at conferences and discussions). Consider also rapid urbanization and that we increasingly work in cities, it’s technical and complex, humanitarians often out of their depth, aid could change and use instead a model of localizing support /an exchange to/from External/supporting municipality – municipality in affected area/crisis, or utility -utility, Hospital-Hospital, Technical college- technical college etc. facilitated by humanitarians who may/usually have access.

  6. Nick Goodwin

    Follow the money. One way to truly localize is to set salary and consultancy etc rates in line with local markets. The current high salaries and profits for international consultants, contractors and agencies create incentives for them to protect the status quo. This applies also to local staff of international agencies who are often paid much higher than their government/NGO counterparts. Specialised expertise should be paid higher as the exception not the rule. The savings will enable more work to be done and lead to true localisation. There will be resistance from international agencies to this. To show the depth of resistance, try doing a poll with the question, “Would you be prepared to take a 50% pay cut to enable localization of development work?”

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