Pump more aid dollars into local response, say charities

London, May 10

The chaos of emergency responses to crises such as the Syria war and Nepal quake could be drastically eased by shifting more of the world’s aid billions to local relief groups, some of biggest international aid charities said in a survey.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 25 aid agencies, including large revenue-generating charities headquartered in the US and Britain, also revealed scepticism that local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can meet donors’ compliance standards.

Fifty international organisations working in each country — Nepal and Syria — were contacted in the anonymous survey ahead of the first World Humanitarian Summit later this month, where the proliferation of local NGOs and the role they should play in aid response will be on the agenda.

The gathering of governments, aid agencies and private companies in Istanbul on May 23 to 24 comes as officials warn of ever-increasing humanitarian needs due to conflicts, natural disasters and climate change.

To help ease pressure on an overburdened aid system, up to 90 per cent of international charities operating in Nepal after the April 2015 quake surveyed by Thomson Reuters Foundation said bilateral funding from governments and UN agencies should go directly to national-level organisations.

“(Foreign) relief agencies coming into Nepal after the earthquake had no understanding of the context,” said one international aid group in the survey.

“While partnering with local NGOs seems to have delayed the response, it may well have made it more effective in other ways and built capacity for the future.”

Just over half of aid agencies with programmes in Syria said bilateral funding should go directly to national organisations.

The charities in both countries, which worked with partners in almost all cases, were split on how much cash should be channelled to local NGOs from multilateral pots, such as the UN response plans and appeals.

Twenty-three international charities, including Oxfam and CARE, have agreed to adopt an initiative called Charter for Change, which commits them to passing on 20 per cent of their humanitarian funding to national organisations.

National and local groups’ share of the total funding pie halved to 0.2 per cent in 2014 from 2012, and their share of the money received by all NGOs also fell to 1.2 per cent, according to UK-based research group Development Initiatives.

But this figure can vary across country contexts and funding streams. In Syria last year, 10 per cent of that country’s UN emergency response fund went to national groups, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Of the organisations responding to the survey, 60 per cent of those working in Syria and around 80 per cent of those active in Nepal said more than one-fifth of global direct funding should go to local NGOs.

It was unclear whether the results reflect the views of the entire humanitarian sector as some of the largest agencies with annual budgets of over $2 billion, including Save the Children and World Vision International (WVI), did not complete the survey.

WVI Spokesman Steve Panton said putting local people and organisations in charge of their own aid responses was non-negotiable. “The challenge is how to get there,” he said.

More than half of the organisations polled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that are working in Nepal said they either strongly agreed or tended to agree that collaborating with local NGOs enabled them to reach more people affected by the disaster.

Two big tremors last April and May killed 9,000 people, injured more than 22,000, and damaged or destroyed more than 900,000 houses, forcing many to brave freezing temperatures in shelters made of tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets.

Bibek Pandit, a 21-year-old engineering student who volunteers with Youth Action Nepal (YoAC), a local NGO, was in his bedroom at home near Kathmandu when the quake hit.

He and a friend rushed to a neighbour’s house where a six-year-old girl and another child were buried by rubble.

“No one else could have reached the family in time as where they lived was quite remote,” Pandit said.

The Nepali NGO used Facebook to mobilise 1,700 volunteers to work in half of all 14 affected districts in the days after the quake, providing food, shelter and other forms of assistance to people in need, said Bhawana Bhatta, its general secretary.

Bhatta, who set up the NGO in the quake-prone region in 2003, said local knowledge was vital to reach remote areas, some only accessible by foot.

“We knew which village to go to and what relief materials to supply, so we were prompt in delivery,” Bhatta said.

After the disaster, YoAC joined forces with German international NGO Misereor. This was a fruitful relationship, Bhatta said, but other international NGOs became frustrated by the length of time it took to vet potential collaborators.

“On many occasions a small organisation does not possess the documents required to allow them to be screened,” said one UK-based charity in the survey.

“There was a high level of bureaucracy which hampered the ability of humanitarian organisations to reach the most vulnerable people affected by the earthquake,” said another NGO.