Comparative advantages of local, national and international actors in emergencies

When you’re facing a crisis who do you turn to? Or what happens when your usual support networks like family, friends and neighbours are not around? Most of us can only imagine what we would do if our crisis became a war in the country we live in.

But that’s the reality for people who have been affected by the conflict in South Sudan, which erupted in December 2013. It began in the capital, Juba and then spread rapidly across the country’s different states. Local survival mechanisms have been depleted since then and populations have few remaining resources.

At the start of this year more than 2.2 million people have been displaced and the prospects are bleak while conflict continues despite the signing of a Peace Agreement in August 2015. The far-reaching effects of conflict mean that humanitarian organisations need to respond to the needs of both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities.

However, all humanitarian actors struggle to respond to these acute needs against a context of chronic poverty, on-going conflict and insecurity, limited infrastructure and a significant funding shortfall. Local, national and international actors all bring important contributions to this response.

The most effective humanitarian partnerships have emerged in South Sudan when the comparative advantages of local, national and international organisations complement each other, and where investment in long-term partnerships before a crisis emerges are set up so that the partnerships can be scaled-up effectively.


Missed Out

This was one of the key findings in the latest series of research papers commissioned by Tearfund along with ActionAid, CAFOD, Christian Aid and Oxfam on the subject of humanitarian partnerships in disasters. This most recent study ‘Missed Out: The role of local actors in the humanitarian response in the South Sudan conflict’ , which is being launched in Juba today. It seeks to understand the strengths and challenges of working with national and local NGOs in South Sudan’s emergency following the escalation of conflict on 15 December 2013, and reviews how the broader humanitarian system facilitates or prevents their involvement.

At the height of the violence churches in Juba became ‘safe havens’ as people were forced to flee their homes and found refuge in places of worship where volunteers distributed essential food and medicine. Across South Sudan, churches hosted tens of thousands of displaced people in their compounds, receiving limited funding for food and other emergency provisions via international faith-based partners, members, and individual donations. The permanent presence and country-wide networks particularly of churches, brings significant benefits to the overall humanitarian response.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit South Sudan, and see for myself how the different actors work together in meeting the needs of the displaced population. What striked me most was the commitment from the INGOs and the examples cited of local and national organisations engaging communities, understanding culture, and building trust.

As the Missed Out research demonstrated when an INGO in Aweil East encountered difficulties in distribution of food vouchers, a group of church leaders from three denominations was able to talk to the community about the purpose of the distribution, and persuade those not included to let the distribution continue peacefully. The group was also well placed to understand and identify gaps in assistance: when vulnerable people were excluded it was the church representatives they sought out for help and information.

There were also notable examples of faith-based groups providing voluntary assistance and taking personal risks to provide protection for their communities. Church leaders described sheltering thousands of people in their compounds in the days after the crisis, sleeping in doorways, preventing the entry of armed soldiers, and negotiating for food from local business owners and NGOs. One recounted:

“I slept at the gate in my collar and full clerical dress, with only my bare hands… I said this is a place of life: I won’t have violence here. If I had been scared, I could not have prevented it, I could not have prevented the atrocities. But the people were vulnerable. They were children and the elderly who could not even run. For those days I had real courage and I was very bold and talked without fear. Nobody died in the compound.”

In protracted crises like South Sudan, addressing the root causes by building peace and resilience are just as vital as responding to the emergency needs. Again, this is a space where national actors have huge potential. Funding is primarily limited by a lack of capacity in the church institutions and a lack of understanding as to how they operate, on the part of many international humanitarian actors. Recognising the value of the existing and potential role of the churches through stronger relationships and networks could benefit humanitarian efforts, peace-building and recovery.


Addressing power imbalances

While international organisations bring essential professional expertise and mechanisms, complementarity is not favoured in a system which prioritises immediacy and short-term value for money. That’s why at Tearfund we’re advocating that concepts of partnership should consist of flexible ways of enhancing capabilities and capacities, and explore more innovative approaches to enhance comparative advantages. Maximising the role of national actors will require changes to the humanitarian system and include the nature of donor, the UN and INGO support to the capacity of national actors as professional humanitarians, going beyond a tick box approach to representation.

I wait, hopeful that these discussions will lead to firm commitments and action from the World Humanitarian Summit, which is taking place in May. Power imbalances need to be addressed and spaces created, particularly at a local level, where the full range of national organisations can take part in decision making. I long to see a transformed humanitarian system that invests in long-term partnerships that builds local capacity and resilience before, during and after an emergency.



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