The humanitarian sector took a hard look at itself in Geneva last week, and the picture was not quite the heroic, saintly image it would prefer to see. Less than 2% of all humanitarian funding goes directly to local NGOs, despite them taking the lion’s share of the risk and often being better placed to deliver, according to aid insiders.
Stephen O’Brien, the head of United Nations humanitarian affairs, told a conference in Switzerland that aid delivered by local agencies was often faster, cheaper and more “culturally appropriate”. O’Brien said, “In Syria, the Arab Red Crescent risked their lives every day to help. In west Africa during the Ebola outbreak, community leaders succeeded where international actors had failed.”
But despite years of discussion about the issue, almost all aid funding continues to flow to the large international agencies; a situation that is increasingly embarrassing for the sector.
One campaigner from the global south said: “Please don’t keep telling us that we need to build capacity; it’s insulting and patronizing. It’s an old-fashioned, colonial viewpoint. These organizations are run by people with two PhDs, they are not stupid. Just assume that the capacity is there and fund us properly.”
Sean Lowrie, of the Start Network, which brings together international and national NGOs for humanitarian response, said the current model was not working. “We’re still working in an old-fashioned, centralized, top-down system, which believes in the fallacy of control. We’re stuck and we’re not talking about the real issue, which are incentives, behavior and governance. What we need is a whole new eco-system of smart humanitarianism, which responds to what is needed, which is flexible and diversified, and which is financed in new, smart ways.”
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