The humanitarian revolution: reimagining a colonial-era model

The UN will hold its first ever-humanitarian summit Monday. New challenges in global aid are forcing groups to rethink how to meet changing needs. This is Part 1 of a four-part series.

Michael Duff/AP/File
A man and woman take part in a Ebola prevention campaign in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in this 2014 file photo. Some international aid organizations are pushing to empower local aid workers to take more of a leading role in crises.

The rusted signboards line roadsides in towns like Kailahun. They are markers of promises long past – humanitarian projects that have come and gone, offering clinics, agricultural programs, women’s empowerment groups, and more.

But Maxwell Makieu is still here.

True, Community Association for Psychosocial Services (CAPS), where he works, is not likely to be mistaken for a high-powered international aid effort – a rusting Ford Ranger with four flat tires sits outside, slumped in the dirt.

But the greatest virtues of this counseling and support center, created by local aid workers during the country’s civil war more than a decade ago, is that it’s scrappy, local, and utterly committed to the people of eastern Sierra Leone.

“We are here, and it isn’t like we have somewhere else to go,” says Mr. Makieu, who has worked at CAPS for two decades. “This is our community.”

As the world faces an evolving humanitarian crisis of proportions not seen since World War II, those virtues are no small thing.

Beginning next week, world leaders and international aid groups will gather in Istanbul, Turkey, for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. The goal is to reform the global humanitarian system to meet 21st century needs.

Protracted conflicts like the Syrian civil war and increasingly intense natural disasters have at once complicated the humanitarian picture and vastly expanded the sheer number of displaced and needy. The United Nations officials say global giving will meet only about half of the $40 billion need this year.

International aid organizations know they must evolve, and one idea that is gaining momentum ahead of next week’s summit echoes to the brightly-curtained windows of CAPS: “Local actors” need to be a much bigger part of the solution.

As critics like to note, the prevailing system was developed by Western colonial powers with a “we know what’s best for you” outlook. And to some aid groups, such as Oxfam, it is increasingly clear that international aid groups have for too long simply shunted local groups to the side when they strode in to help. 

“The international community does a really poor job of investing in local leadership,” says Greg Adams, Oxfam America’s director of aid effectiveness. “The system by and large perpetuates a lack of local capacity, when we should be doing the opposite.”

To others, that is necessary, as corrupt or strong-handed governments could use weak local groups to take control of humanitarian operations. Some local actors could also use their position to deepen ethnic and sectarian divides in counties already in crisis.

But there is no doubt that local groups like CAPS and others have been a vital resource not only for their communities but also for international aid groups in times of crisis. During the Ebola outbreak, for instance, outside groups like Doctors Without Borders needed CAPS to get up to speed quickly.

The question in Istanbul and beyond, then, is how local actors can best be developed and relied upon to address a widening array of humanitarian challenges.

“Tensions over this new direction don’t serve anyone, we have to realize that what we need is for humanitarian assistance to be approached as an effort among equals working towards the same goal,” says Sidi Jaquite, a community activist in Guinea-Bissau.

“International organizations will need local actors to get to more people faster, and local actors will continue to need the international support,” he adds. “So the best answer is partnership.”

•  •  •

Mr. Jaquite says he can understand why international organizations came in decades ago with a top-down structure.

“We didn’t have the technical expertise and the structures to do these things for ourselves,” he says.

But in recent years, more trained and educated specialists have returned to the country, he says, and the government has put more resources into improving infrastructure and preventing outbreaks of diseases.

As a result, organizations such as Oxfam, which has made him part of an international initiative to develop local actors, are tapping into that expanding local talent.

“A country like Guinea-Bissau is far better prepared than it was 20 years ago to play a leadership role in meeting our humanitarian needs, and I think the best international organizations recognize that,” he says.

Jane Hahn/Oxfam America
Sidi Jaquite is working with Oxfam to find and develop the capacity of local actors.

From years of experience, Jaquite has come to a theory as to why some international aid groups don’t view the empowerment of local actors with enthusiasm.

“If they develop local capacity to a point of self-sufficiency, they risk losing their reason for being, their reason to exist, and their daily bread,” says the activist, who created Nadel, an organization that focuses on water and sanitary practices.

But others point to the “Sudanization” of aid in Sudan as a cautionary tale. There, President Omar al-Bashir sought to limit Western relief organizations and extend control over domestic groups. 

 •  •  •

In many ways, however, Sierra Leone’s unimposing CAPS operation is a case in point for the positive impact of shifting focus from international charities staffed by expats to grass-roots charities.

When the Ebola outbreak swept through the region two years ago, CAPS was one of the few organizations on the ground with capacity to provide support to survivors, families, and health care workers traumatized by the experience and their losses.

Both Doctors Without Borders and Concern Worldwide tapped into CAPS staff to get up and running and provide counseling services to locals. Eventually, Save the Children hired some CAPS counselors to work with Ebola orphans.

“Ebola survivors experienced traumas similar to those who survived the war,” says CAPS director Edward Bockarie. “Those were problems we knew how to deal with.”

But when global attention isn’t focused on Sierra Leone, CAPS has struggled to hang on. In the post-civil war years, it strung together grants from different international groups. Today, staff counselors haven’t been paid for six months. The Ford Ranger in front has been broken for a year.

The challenge facing international aid organizations is how to harness organizations like CAPS and Nadel most effectively.

“The strength of local organizations like ours is our proximity to the communities,” says Jaquite. “The health consultations and other work we do is by locals who know the culture and the languages of the populations we’re serving.”

And they stay behind when international organizations have long gone, he adds.

Since the Ebola outbreak two years ago, there have been a few isolated cases of Ebola, “but the international organizations that were on the ground during the height of the crisis have already left,” he says, “so it’s up to us.”

Jaquite says it may take time before the humanitarian community completes a shift to wider reliance on local actors, but current crises will make the shift both inevitable and positive all around.

“I’m not saying we don’t need the international organizations, we do,” he adds. “But we need the training and support they bring so we can build a sustainable emergency intervention system.”

Ryan Lenora Brown's reporting in Sierra Leone was supported by the International Reporting Project.

The humanitarian revolution

Part 1: Reimagining a colonial-era model
Part 2: The human 'dignity' of a job
Part 3: What happens when emergencies don't end?
Part 4: At UN summit, a new 'hope'

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