In a Geneva conference hall last October, a bespectacled Somali woman, in hijab and flowing robes, took to the stage and began to berate the humanitarian system. The establishment, she said, was failing local NGOs. International organizations had lost their moral compass and local groups were not prepared to put up with it any longer.
“We are demanding change,” Degan Ali, executive director of the Kenyan-based NGO African Development Solutions (Adeso), told the audience. “Be prepared to be uncomfortable.”
She wasn’t kidding. Over the last few years, Ali has led the charge of small, local, predominantly southern organizations – the kind who do most of the work, yet receive the smallest share of funding – against the northern humanitarian establishment. She has highlighted the derisory 2% that local organisations currently receive directly of humanitarian funding, and accused the entire sector of racism.
On paper, Ali is an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Somalia to a political family, the family moved to the US with her diplomat father when she was nine. When war broke out they stayed, and Ali went to high school, and then university in the US. Bilingual, educated, she cut her teeth as a social activist on the notorious south side of Chicago, but never lost sight of her desire to go back to Africa. So, with the offer of a job with the UN, she returned to Somalia where her mother had set up Adeso, then a small organization.
What she found was a shock. “I saw my mother doing great work, but it was the most humiliating and depressing thing to watch her fundraise, to try and bang on the doors of the donor establishment, because she came from a local NGO,” says Ali.
“I left the US thinking I was going to leave behind a system of institutionalized racism. Unfortunately, I found a different form of institutionalized racism in the humanitarian system.”
The humanitarian sector has long recognized there’s a problem. Evaluations and policy papers alike have castigated responses and agencies for their failure to put local responders at the center of any crisis response, but little has changed in practice. And little that might endanger the current balance of power.
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