Shifting the Power: A Few Hard Truths on Localisation

Many have said it before: localisation needs to stop being a talking point and start being a reality.  But we have been saying this since the advent of capacity building. So do we really mean it? If so, how can we bring about localised change effectively, and swiftly?

Like Turkeys approaching Thanksgiving

As my team and I have argued in a number of articles since the release of our report on the Future of the Aid sector through to 2030, INGOs, as they evolve, will increasingly need to mimic turkeys in the approach to thanksgiving. Alright, we haven’t all said it in the same way. But the general consensus is that INGOs will need to embrace their end. They will need to stop existing for the sake of it. As they specialise, and focus on their specific value add, they will need to downsize, and realise that bigger is not always better. This will not be easy – when we talk about downsizing in large INGOs we often mean the dissolution of entire departments – these are human costs we’re talking about – jobs, lives, careers, or as we often like to call them: livelihoods.

It will be Painful

Genuinely shifting power, rather than just capacity or resources, to national NGOs, local organisations, grassroots movements, or even ‘beneficiaries’, will be a long and painful transition. This transformation should not be regarded as a readjustment of political language, a short-term project focussed on rebalancing perceptions. The length of time it will take, should also not be used as a shield to hide behind. Just because it will be a lengthy process doesn’t mean we should not start on it at all, or that we should waste years talking about how localisation might result in a lowered quality of programming. Or that counterterrorism legislation makes localisation impossible. Localisation will be a negotiated process during which the differences (in values, priorities and roles) of the north and the south will need to be ironed out.

Studies[1] have shown that more diverse workplaces produce more creative ideas, but also tend to disagree more. Surely this is the aim for the aid sector – the industry should represent the diversity of those we serve, but also effectively come up with creative solutions to challenges such as access, fundraising, and political stalemates. This diversity will result in more disagreement, yes. But we have come to the end of the road landmarked by monolithic INGOs. The time for a more diverse, at times clashing, global humanitarian workforce, has arrived.  

At Shifting the Power, Walking the Walk an event hosted in London last month by the START Network, Anne Street from CAFOD said: we’re in an uncomfortable place at the moment, but maybe that’s where we should be. I would add, this is where we should continue to be, as we become more diverse. It is specifically this diversity which will encourage us to question our motives and values further, to ensure that the work we do stands up to criticism and can hold its own in the long-run.

Power Shifting is Non-negotiable  

At a recent event we organised for our future of aid report, we were asked, is localisation a fait accompli? The answer is unequivocally, yes. There is no exit option on this one – it is the future and it should have been the past.

At Shifting the Power, Ben Emmens said that localisation needed to be a ‘conscious letting go of power, by those who hold the tightest grip.  He describes this shift in power, to be a process that requires courage. Courage to adjust our mindset and structures, and invest in movements that we do not control.

These conclusions reflect precisely what we suggest in our Future of Aid report, which launched in July 2017: money, decision-making, skills, staff but most importantly power needs to shift from northern INGOs to local NGOs. From large institutional donors to foundations that are linked to crisis affected populations and can work directly with them in order to decide how much, and how money should be spent.

To conclude the aforementioned event, Ben Emmens made a clever statement that played on the title of the event: walking the walk. He said: “some have wandered, some have marched, and others have stopped for breath. There is also the African proverb: ‘the path is made by walking.’” Those who are walking the walk and embracing localisation are the ones forging a courageous path forward. They are leap-frogging the rest of us. These leading organisations need to be commended, copied, and their efforts scaled. We can work on this together, or we can work on this alone – the destination will be the same one.   

Flipping the Coin

At another event we discussed along similar, more provocative lines: If the West was suddenly hit with a crisis, would Western governments accept that a foreign country from the global South, say China, enter our territory to delivery aid without direct government supervision? Not a chance. But it’s what aid organisations do in countries around the world every day.

It’s only what we would ask for in return.


*This article is based on discussion that took place at an event organised by Shifting the Power, on localisation

Some examples of organisations incentivizing localisation:

  • CAFOD: when grants come through this organisation and over 7% is allocated to overheads, CAFOD shares half with their local partner.  
  • The START Network is reopening membership to southern NGOs for the first time since 2015.

[1] E.g.: Guardian, Forbes, Harvard Business Review. An example of the latter


Michel Maietta, Director of the IARAN