Rethinking capacity and complementarity for a more local humanitarian action

International cooperation Foreign aid Humanitarian assistance

Humanitarian action has been a mainly international endeavour, where power continues to lie with donors, UN agencies and large international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). This led to a call at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) for humanitarian action to be as ‘local as possible, as international as necessary’ (UN, 2016), inspiring numerous debates and initiatives, including the Grand Bargain. To better inform local humanitarian action, HPG launched a two-year research project in 2017 on capacity and complementarity, of which this is the final report.

Key findings:

  • A lack of recognition of existing local capacity is the main obstacle to more complementarity between local and international actors. This stems from how capacity is understood and assessed – actors tend to define capacity in the way that best matches their own interests and perceptions of their own strengths.
  • Complementarity between local and international actors does not readily exist in practice. Instead we found two situations: one where humanitarian action aimed to be as local as possible and only local; a second where humanitarian action was as international as possible and as local as necessary.
  • Levels of complementarity are affected by a number of factors including coordination practices, donor attitudes to fiduciary and reputational risk, government attitudes and policy, lines of accountability, access to affected people and the nature of the crisis.
  • Low levels of trust, unequal power dynamics and perceptions of legitimacy all play a significant role in how complementarity plays out in a crisis context.
  • Where long-term and strategic partnerships exist and there are well-established development organisations, complementarity in humanitarian action tends to be higher.
  • While strong localisation activism can lead to tension rather than collaboration, it demonstrates how networks of local actors can alter power dynamics through using the language of the Grand Bargain commitment on localisation.
Publication Details