Country Insights Series: Localization

In Country Insights, humanitarian actors will help unpack some of the biggest challenges facing the aid community. This series amplifies the perspectives of those working most closely to conflict with an intimate understanding of disaster and humanitarian contexts.

In our first piece, the Humanitarian Agenda asked aid workers their views about ongoing localization efforts and the impact on organizational response. For the past five years, localization has emerged as a critical topic. Localization efforts seek to increase the amount of aid funding given directly to local organizations and vulnerable populations in a humanitarian crisis to achieve better cost efficiencies and ensure aid is tailored to a local context. The pandemic has revitalized debates around power structures within humanitarian action and the increased responsibilities carried by country-based staff amid travel restrictions.

The humanitarian sector has been particularly vocal and self-reflective about the challenges in reconstituting a system that is heavily funded, staffed, and directed by staff from donor states. Rethinking how donors and the large multilateral and international nongovernmental organizations can better partner with existing local aid efforts is essential to reimagining the future of humanitarian action.

Q1: What does localization mean to you? What conversations are taking place at your organization to promote a more localized response?

Zakaria Bulus, Church of the Brethren, Nigeria: Localization recognizes the importance of local actors in leading and designing solutions that impact their communities, listening to the local “voice” in determining needs, using available local human resources, and local use of external resources to implement humanitarian intervention.

My Nigerian localization experience includes engaging with community stakeholders through advocacy, working with community-based volunteers and staff in program implementation, and working toward system strengthening and compliance by training staff on key intervention areas to ensure they meet the international standard and utilize best practices.   

Tha’er Jalloud, UNRWA, West Bank: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established as a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1949, and became operational on May 1, 1950. After 70 years, our organization is still working almost in the same areas. Localization means for me better service for refugees through refugee staff members. It also means that we need to keep coordination and consultation efforts with the refugee representatives in areas of operations for better targeting, to adjust services to changing needs, and to improve efficiency and effectiveness. It also means that we must work with other UN agencies and governmental bodies to avoid overlap of services, increase the interventions’ impact, and ensure a complementary approach.

Suha Basharen, CARE Yemen: Localization means long-lasting impact for humanitarian and development intervention. CARE Yemen is keen to apply localization in all their programs through partnering with local NGOs in many activities.

Amjad Abu-Laban, UNRWA, West Bank: For a huge organization like UNRWA, it is important to localize services. UNRWA provides vital services such as education, health, and relief to Palestinian refugees. It is imperative to provide services by local teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers to the refugee community. These services promote better communication and understanding of the cultural context. However, aid workers still depend on an international presence, which is perceived as more neutral in politically complex environments.

Hanadi Abu-Taqa, UNRWA, West Bank: The international community plays an important advocacy role on behalf of UNWRA’s mandate. It provides a better understanding for a global audience of the situation of refugees and can support international fundraising efforts. Having different cultures and experiences from all over the world is also important to build the capacity of staff and open international opportunities to other national staff to improve their skills and competencies. It means also working with local community organizations to build their capacities to be able to provide better services to refugees and be more efficient in using the limited resources. Localization means more participation and involvement of local communities in decisionmaking processes.

Q2: What benefits has localization had on humanitarian action in your community? What challenges do these efforts face?

Suha Basharen, CARE Yemen: The most important benefit of localization is the continuity of operations because local organizations will have access to their areas even in difficult times, ensuring that activities continue.

Amjad Abu-Laban, UNRWA: Localization has a very positive impact on the quality of services and employs local services providers, which in turn benefits communities by injecting money into the economy and reducing unemployment and vulnerability. However, the political, financial, and security situation remains the main challenge and, sometimes, the scarcity of qualified people.

Hanadi Abu-Taqa, UNRWA: Local staff are more familiar of the context of the camp and the dynamic of the refugee community as most of them are refugees and best placed to talk about humanitarian needs.

Zakaria Bulus, Church of the Brethren, Nigeria: A locally led response has the advantage of better access and deeper networks with affected people. Community members and organizations are "heard" at the community level. There are places international partners cannot reach due to their security protocols, but local actors, together with communities, can provide the access and necessary services to locals. Localization builds local NGOs' skills in finance, monitoring and evaluation, program management, procurement, human resources, and more. This leads to a program's sustainability, achieving more with less, and using the insights of local actors in program interventions for the most vulnerable populations.

Local organizations often face funding constraints. The sustainability of these programs is often at risk since local organizations must retrain and build their staff's capacity. Those experienced staff members transition to international organizations over time. On their own, many of these local organizations are not sustainable without more meaningful local roles and collaboration with the international organization. Efforts are being taken to strengthen local organizations; however, international organizations still do not often entrust much responsibility to local partners. Building mutuality for new models of humanitarian work involving local NGOs and INGOs as mentors and partners is sometimes challenging.

Local organizations face significant cultural challenges due to tribal, familial, and religious affiliations, resulting in compliance and execution of some policies (including governmental policies that impact project implementation). Politicization can impede the integrity of neutrality, independence, humanity, and impartiality as the core guiding principles of humanitarian aid.

"While opportunities exist to learn from each other, it often depends on how an international organization sees the relationship. The relationship between international and local organizations should be mutual, working toward achieving mutual project goals.” — Zakaria Bulus

Q3. What role do you see international partners playing to accelerate localization efforts?

Suha Basharen, CARE Yemen: International organizations can bring experience and help build the capacity of national staff. One of the areas where international organizations can support national staff would be to give them the opportunity for short deployment in another context to strengthen their capacity. One of the best practices of CARE Yemen is assigning national staff to area management positions, which enhances decentralization and better facilitates work on the ground.

Hanadi Abu-Taqa, UNRWA: There is a well-established relationship between national and international staff that enables teamwork and the exchange of experiences that provides the opportunity to better understand the political and social context. At the organizational level and due to the increased needs inside camps and limited resources, it is important to build trust among both sides. The local organizations will be able, in cooperation with the international organizations, to tailor programs to use the limited resources properly and efficiently. This also will encourage income-generating initiatives where the role of the INGOs is to build the capacity and establish a base for such initiatives.

Zakaria Bulus, Church of the Brethren, Nigeria: International organizations play a significant role by building local partners' capacity in different dimensions in terms of their policies, reporting, procurements, and training in different thematic areas. It allows them to execute contractual agreements and perform better, assessing local organizations to identify and strengthen gaps. At the end of a program, international organizations occasionally do transfer assets to local organizations.

In most cases, the relationship is a mentor-mentee relationship. The international organization is the mentor, and the local organization is the mentee, stimulating the transfer of knowledge between them. Some local organizations, however, have a strong capacity that they have built over the years.

At times, the relationship between local and international staff reflects a lack of mutuality, as local staff are regarded as inferior. Still, local actors are more detailed and context oriented than the international team. While opportunities exist to learn from each other, it often depends on how an international organization sees the relationship. The relationship between international and local organizations should be mutual, working toward achieving mutual project goals.

Tha’er Jalloud, UNRWA: In my opinion and based on my knowledge of international and national stakeholders in my country, I think huge efforts have been achieved in localization; during the pandemic, localization was reenforced more due to lockdown and border closures.

Amjad Abu-Laban, UNRWA: International partners play a very important role in the political and financial aspects of operations. UNRWA and local organizations are very much depending on support provided by the international community and organizations in promoting the need for funding and expertise. They play a crucial role in legitimizing the need for the support.

If you are interested in contributing to a future Country Insights commentary, please email CSIS Humanitarian Agenda Program Manager John Goodrick (

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