localisation means recognising, respecting and strengthening leadership and decision-making by local and national actors in humanitarian action, in order to better address the needs of affected populations.Aligning our strategies with the World Humanitarian Summit imperative and ensuring a commitment by humanitarian actors to deliver on the theory is easy. It really does make sense and it is not as if it is a new initiative or principle. Governments and academics may have coined a new term and re-defined the principle – but most humanitarian actors (and many faith communities) have been committed to the principles of local ownership and action for decades. (Conversely, and in truth, as many governments and actors have not – a paternal, colonial approach is much easier and quicker.)
But then, one day the academic, the politician and the strategist visit the field! They spend time in a disaster-prone community, they meet a school principal who regularly evacuates his school because of flood, they meet with groups who support women who have experienced intimate partner violence. They meet real people, living in difficult and complex real-life contexts, within a community that is not as structured and supported as home. And, almost instantly, the champion of inclusive localisation theory, the passionate advocate of self-governance and ownership transforms into a paternalistic colonial. “Why are they still operating in that area if it is flooded regularly? Why haven’t you (the NGO) moved them? Why are you not making the government department move them?”
The gap between theory and practice is revealed in the field. I am a passionate advocate for localisation, always have been, whether we called it that or not, but it’s not as easy as you might think, and want. While it is a principle that can be mandated by donors and international stakeholders – it is not a practice that can be assumed, a mindset easily adopted or even believed in by all humanitarian professionals. When faced by the realities of injustice and inequity localisation is not often the first principle to jump to mind and practice.
You can’t pick ‘n mix what parts of localisation you like. You can’t mandate that all funds will go to local actors, but their decision on how to spend it will be subject to donor approval. You can’t pretend you are empowering the local government but then dictate how and where they will build facilities.
The principles of localisation are good and right, as international actors we must work to operationalise the theory, but let’s not pretend it’s easy and that we will always get the results we want, or think they should have. (Nor should donors imagine they will always get the quality of compliance or transparency they demand if they require localisation.) Giving people ownership, ensuring that they choose their priorities requires giving up my control and trusting them, even if I don’t agree. (And maybe working on informing their decisions and priorities through relationship and trust – not compliance.)