Member article: Interview with Ben Parker: What does "localization" of humanitarian aid mean in practice?



Liz Arnanz: We have here Ben Parker, who is co-founder and Head of Enterprise Projects at IRIN News. Could you define from your journalist perspective, what does the term "localization" mean?

Ben Parker: "Localization," from a journalist perspective, it looks like another piece of jargon from the aid industry. It's a word that is trying to carry too much meaning - it has to do with equity, it has to do with justice, it has to do with redistribution of wealth and power, it has to do with guilt from the Northern NGOs. It has to do with so many things all at once. So as a journalist, it's exactly the kind of language that we struggle to use and communicate with to the public.

Liz Arnanz: As a humanitarian practitioner, how would you view it?

Ben Parker: As an ex humanitarian practitioner, I think localization is a necessary priority. I think it is difficult to force things. But certainly things have to change, and the fact that there is a small oligopoly controlling most of the money and influence in the humanitarian sector is clearly wrong and outdated. It's a function of history, it's a function of postcolonial economics, and so on. If you're in Kenya, you can probably find enough Kenyans to do what needs to be done, and you don't need to fly in people from all over the world. So in that sense, it's right, it's the right time, it needs to happen. On the other hand, people who have power and money generally don't change because they think it may be time. So I'm concerned that the forces to make localization happen are not strong enough.

Liz Arnanz: Humanitarian response to disaster relief and conflicts is usually quite different. Should we approach localization in the same way for both kinds of response?

Ben Parker: I think for disaster relief, it's already happening. In terms of natural disasters, places like the Philippines and a number of countries in Asia clearly can handle it themselves. And when they do need external support, they know where to go, who to ask and the nature and dimensions of it. In that sense, in disasters, it's easier. When you have protracted conflicts and a lot of coming and going of different parties and different frontlines, it's often one of the circumstances where internationals have an advantage, because they can be neutral, they can cross lines, and so on. But again, they don't need to do everything.

Liz Arnanz: What do you think the role of the private sector could be to boost localization? Is it needed?

Ben Parker: I think the private sector can threaten some vested interests, which is good. When I say vested interests, I could include major NGOs, departments of UN agencies that do procurement, or transport, or logistics, or HR, or IT, or whatever. Many of these things could be outsourced to the private sector in the affected country, which I think would be better for the economy. The private sector needs to be allowed to compete with some of the internal processes that we have now.

Liz Arnanz: You have been working on the topic of humanitarian financing. Regarding localization and the "Grand Bargain," do you see it being implemented?

Ben Parker: It's a bit early for the Grand Bargain. We are only six months from the Summit as we speak today. We had conversations about it today. I don't really see many things that have actually happened. But I do think it has made people change internally, and a process has begun. You will see more use of cash, more attention to local agenda. You'll see some work on efficiency and rationalization. As for the rest of the work in there, I don't know.

Liz Arnanz: Do you see the change to come from only actors like the international NGOs? Or does it also come from governmental agencies and other actors.?

Ben Parker:  I find this a bit strange – because the people who pay the bills, they have the influence. So it is a bargain, but the bargain really is one-sided. You have USAID, the European Union, the British, and the Nordic countries – they could say what they want, and they can make it happen.

Ben Parker
PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.