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Four radical shifts towards decolonising aid

Two 5am starts followed by 16 hours of screen time. Yet by the end of the 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference, ‘energised’ was the word I used to sum up my feelings. Quite a feat!

Hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership at Deakin University, the conference challenged delegates to critically reflect on the humanitarian status quo. Speakers and participants dialled in from across the globe. There were representatives from local civil society organisations and large international agencies (INGOs), plus a whole host of individuals, from academics and journalists, to poets and at least one musician!

Despite this diversity of voices, a clear thread ran through the sessions, highlighting the need for bold action to decolonise humanitarian aid. The so-called ‘localisation’ agenda, formalised in the Grand Bargain in 2016, has been criticised for failing to create meaningful change. But, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations about addressing power imbalance in the aid sector have finally risen to the surface. The conference called on participants to turn words into action and these four radical shifts were repeatedly cited as places for INGOs and donors to start


An anonymous survey of INGO leaders, soon to be published by Save the Children, found that ‘money’ and ‘donors’ were considered the top two factors influencing the future of humanitarianism. This comes as no surprise, especially given recent aid cuts, but it reflects an uncomfortable truth that power within the sector sits disproportionately with donors. Arbie Baguios from Aid Reimagined called this out and challenged INGOs to put values front and foremost: to influence donor priorities rather than being influenced by them, and to more boldly turn down funding that doesn’t align with the needs. 

Dustin Barter from the University of Cambridge also noted room for improvement, this time in INGO approaches to ‘localisation’. Barter observed that commitments to working with local partners appear only when donor demands or contextual factors necessitate them. This is apparent in Somalia, where INGOs sub-contract to local partners in high-risk areas yet choose to implement directly and forego ‘localisation’ in the more stable Somaliland region. Such operational realities are driven by a persistent growth mindset that regards turnover and geographical footprint as measures of success. It’s time INGOs challenge this model and sacrifice growth in favour of a truly values-led approach.


Traditionally in Syria, local organisations and activists would collaborate through a constant process of consultation, disagreement and compromise. Maree Pardy described the frustration when formal coordination structures were imposed by international actors, bringing with them set ways of working and standards of practice. Suddenly there was a non-negotiable right and wrong way to do things, and local approaches were side-lined and devalued. 

Wakanyi Hoffman from the African Folktales Project spoke of parallel experiences across the African continent. Introducing the concept of ‘ubuntu’, Hoffman explained how indigenous communities constantly develop this collective knowledge and enable solutions to problems to evolve over time. However, such organic approaches are not valued in the current humanitarian system, despite their potential for more sustainable impact. Instead, the system values efficiency over effectiveness and Hoffman warns that ultimately these ‘fast quick fixes lead to the prolonging of problems’.

Degan Ali from Adeso acknowledged this is largely driven by donor demands for certainty of action, and of impact. If either is ambiguous or projected outcomes aren’t achieved, funding inevitably dries up. Lina Sergie Attar from Karam Foundation suggested we flip our measure of success on its head. Why not start measuring the number of people who no longer need support, rather than the number of people who receive it? If we did, perhaps the sector could more openly learn from failures and create space for more adaptive and impactful programming.


In a session on local humanitarian leadership, Ledys Bohorquez spoke of the exclusion of Colombian women’s groups from humanitarian funding and coordination fora. The fact these groups are active long before, during and after a crisis means they’re just not considered ‘humanitarian actors’. The ‘Reshaping Aid’ research project, led by NEAR and WHAF, has already shown that this experience is widespread and seeks to deconstruct the false parameters that fuel this. Furthermore, community consultations have shown that humanitarian needs often fall outside of the traditional sectors represented by the UN cluster system. If we really want to engage with local organisations and to maximise the impact of aid, we need to tear up the rigid boxes we’ve constructed, embrace ‘the Triple Nexus’ and take a more holistic and integrated approach.


Degan Ali’s call on INGOs was straight to the point: ‘stop being implementers in our countries and taking up space’. But that doesn’t mean INGOs have no place in the system. Academic Darina Pellowska put forward an alternative ‘agile’ approach. Proposing INGOs become ‘process managers’, Pellowska outlined a facilitative role, supporting local and national actors to access resources and networks rather than implementing directly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, SeeChange Initiative set a precedent for this. Aiming to mitigate virus transmission, SeeChange produced a roadmap and set of resources, enabling community leaders to develop their own localised approaches to awareness raising. Coaching was also provided, alongside a solidarity network which allowed local leaders to connect and support each other through the pandemic. 

This innovative approach to humanitarian response embraces an invitation from Huffman for INGOs to become ‘catalysts, facilitators and collaborators’. It’s also a far cry from the approach that many INGOs currently take to ‘capacity-building’ which, through their ELNHA programme, Oxfam found to reproduce problematic hierarchies and power imbalances. Evidently, if ‘localisation’ seeks to resolve and not just replicate the problems within the current system, it cannot be about changing local organisations to mimic the INGO form. It must be about changing INGOs and the broader system.

Huffman, and many others throughout the conference, made clear: communities facing problems are usually steps ahead in thinking about the solutions. So if we’re really serious about de-colonising the aid sector, let’s ‘make space’ and start amplifying local solutions that already exist.