Interview with Louisa Seferis: What does "localization" of humanitarian aid mean in practice?

13 June 2017



Liz Arnanz: Hello, here I am with Louisa Seferis from the Danish Refugee Council. She is currently their Global Cash Advisor, and you’ve been in the MENA region, Ukraine, and Myanmar. So could you tell me what are your views on the term “localization”? How do you see it, what does it mean for you?

Louisa Seferis: “Localization,” I think, is an interesting buzzword since we saw it popping up in the World Humanitarian Summit, but it’s definitely nothing new. I think traditionally we tend to think of “localization” as local actors: how do we take the response and involve local people and the affected populations in whatever humanitarian response we are engaged in.

But I think “localization” should go beyond that, and it’s looking at the context, the economy. It was one of our panelists from VNG International today that said it very well, he talked about the economic and spatial aspects of “localization.” I think that’s very interesting because it’s not just about “oh, do you have a local partner?”, which I think we always think of. It’s how we are engaging with the context in which we are supposed to work, what are the requirements on an international actor to know about what they are doing. And that’s why I think is great to see the different organizations and businesses coming together here to talk about localization, because I think we need to think through it a bit further than just local actors.

Liz Arnanz: Sure, and I was just in the conference that you were moderating on protracted crises and how localization could have a better effect on those crises. There was a question addressed to the speakers about what are actually local actors. So I would like to see what is your answer to that question.

Louisa Seferis: Well, it’s interesting. It’s kind of the same the way humanitarians talk about the private sector. It’s local actors and the private sector, and it’s everyone who is not-one of-us kind of thing. I think definitions are important for the kind of work we do; because we need to know – let’s say – not only the different actors, but some of the potential risks with local actors. And I think that sometimes we’ve lost over them because we want to seem politically correct, and yes, it’s very good to promote “localization” but there are some risks with local actors.

So for example, the traditional local actors have been local authorities who are elected or sometimes not. And I think that’s very important to look at: where does the organization come from? Is it a grassroots sort of organization, spontaneous organization? Is it an elected official? Is it someone who has committed to a certain political party? Or a fighting faction? These kinds of categories are quite important because they allow us to access humanitarian actors that have committed to be neutral and impartial, to see where some of the advantages and disadvantages might be. So for example, if you are working with a grassroots group in Northern Syria, that has just come up, they may be the best actor to get access to the affected population in the governorate of – let’s say – Idlib. But they may also come with their own bias, it doesn’t mean that they are the “opposition,” as everyone likes to label them. It just means that they may come with their own sort of bias.

So I think those definitions are important. I don’t think we should limit ourselves to talk about what are local actors, but we should think about ways in which we can categorize them to better understand them, to better approach it and – again – I don’t think we should put all of them in a category of implementing partners. I think that’s a mistake that a lot of international organizations make. We should be looking at different ways we can collaborate that go beyond the contractual model of an implementing partner.

Liz Arnanz: So also following up on the conference, what could “localization” bring, especially in terms of added-value, to protracted crises compared to other more short-term, onset crises?

Louisa Seferis: I think as time goes on in a crisis – and I speak about conflicts, because that’s mainly where DRC works – what you end up seeing is that you have that first response and it’s about getting things to people, keeping people away from danger, and then suddenly the dust settles. And I think our colleague from ICRC said it best in the panel, it’s that these protracted crises become the normal. So it’s no longer these three-month, six-month, one-year interventions. People are displaced for five years, 10 years – on average refugees are out of their home for 17 years. And they may never go home.

So I think “localization” is what allows us to bridge that development-humanitarian divide. It’s very difficult to come in and say what are your priorities when I have a six-month cash program for example, and how can I help to turn around and get development funding for whatever it is we’ve tried. And I think some of the questions we’ve tried to allude to with our panelists saying that the humanitarian development worlds have set themselves up together, and the donors have set themselves up very clearly into boxes, but when on the ground these boxes don’t fit. And that’s where “localization” can help us bridge the gap between those boxes. And try to find a way that the solution makes sense for the people on the ground.

But I also think that what our colleague from UNICEF said was very interesting, it’s how close are these local actors to the populations that – let’s say – we would like to work with. I don’t want to say they need our assistance because that is also a bit patronizing. But we want to work with certain communities because of their vulnerabilities, because of their certain blockage to access of rights, these kinds of things. Is that local actor speaking on behalf of them? Or is that local actor speaking over them? Speaking against them? We have to really understand that, and that I think is our duty as international actors. It’s because we have the luxury of taking a step back, to make sure we use that step back, not to impose things, but to better understand, and better frame.

Liz Arnanz: Just one last question, so what would you see has to be changed in the humanitarian political system in order to give more room for “localization”? And also, if you already see some effects from what it has already been implemented under the “localization” approach, if you can consider it an approach.

Louisa Seferis: I think one of the mistakes we make is that we try to mold local actors to the international humanitarian architecture. And while it may be relevant for local NGOs, for example, to get training and to understand how to work and navigate this world so that they can access funding, so that they can promote their programs, and ultimately assist people they want to assist – that’s fine. But I think that we also need to adapt a bit more to unconventional actors that we see on the ground.

One of the ways in which I think we could really push “localization” is by stopping to think of local actors, so therefore the humanitarian responders who happen to be local actors – I am thinking about the effects in which our work becomes local. Look at cash programs – cash injects money into an economy that can then have certain multiplier effects – positive and negative – on a number of people, including the local community. Within that, you already see that certain private sector actors, and most of them are local – I mean, yes, MasterCard is getting involved and others – but most of them are local banks, money agents; it depends on the context. But those are actors who come in and act as operational partners, not implementing partners, but – let’s say – operational partners or service providers. And that’s where you see “localization” happening.

I just think we need to perhaps take off those labels, look at the situation for what it is, try to provide categories rather than labels, if that distinction makes sense. So think about the ways in which people organize themselves, not try to impose an organization on them and then, see how we can improve ultimately what we are trying to do, which is very difficult. You’ve got reducing funding – humanitarian funding worldwide – you’ve got a huge increase in number of people in need, and the business-as-usual is just not going to work. So “localization,” I think, can be that password to help us better respond to those conflicts, but at the same time understand. But then perhaps the scale needs to be different.

One of the ways in which we see often local actors being able to access humanitarian funding will be – let’s say – reducing the threshold and increasing the support or finding new and creative ways for them to able to engage. And so that’s, I think, something that is very encouraging about the localization trend, that we have a lot to learn, and I feel that the international humanitarian community is finally a bit more ready to listen.