The State of Local Humanitarian Leadership: A Learning Report on a Series of LHL Online Meetings Held in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the Pacific, and West Africa – Global




In 2021 and 2022, Oxfam and partner organizations and networks in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the Pacific and West Africa hosted 10 online learning events related to local humanitarian leadership ( LHL). A total of 450 people from 30 countries participated, of which 60% represented local and national NGOs and 40% international organizations. The objectives were to enhance and share a collective understanding of local leadership issues among learning participants, gain insight into the current state of LHL, improve and expand networks, and provide a global program to accelerate and improve the localization process.


Participants, especially local actors, reported good news: there is a growing commitment to support locally-led humanitarian action, and new calls for international actors to uphold LHL commitments and pledges that they made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. Local leadership has made significant progress in some countries, including Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya and the Philippines, where bigger and better grants are flowing to actors communities, and NGOs are increasingly able to participate in joint planning and decision-making. Some NGOs around the world are reporting more multi-year funding opportunities. Some donors provide direct funding to local and national actors. INGOs are developing new partner-led models and ways of working. INGOs and NGOs conduct joint assessments. Local and national organizations create and strengthen their networks and federations. Leaders from the Global South are better represented in the current Grand Bargain Facilitation Group, with a Sherpa2 coming from Indonesia. Local emergency response funds allow resources to reach local and national actors quickly and directly. There is a growing involvement of young people in humanitarian action and some involvement of the private sector. Increasingly, capacity trainings respond to the needs of NGOs, as defined by the NGOs themselves. And as the system transitions to local leadership, some INGOs realize that they too need training to better understand their role in the transition.


Nevertheless, the challenges proved stubborn:

  • INGOs continue to take the lion’s share of the donations that pass through their hands, and they often fail to provide or share Indirect Cost Recovery (ICR), the overhead that INGOs and NGOs need to ensure the functioning of their organizations.

  • Response coordination mechanisms built around international actors still fail to encompass local and national NGOs: meetings are not conducted or translated into local languages, meeting outcomes often do not reach local actors in timely, and narrow views on who a legitimate humanitarian actor means that women and the organizations they lead are significantly underrepresented in cluster meetings and in humanitarian country teams. More generally, many organizations involved in humanitarian response and other activities, including women’s rights organisations3, trade unions, student unions and faith-based organisations, are currently excluded from the system and therefore lack resources and influence.

  • Short-term funding cycles and a project-based grantmaking approach, especially in the absence of proper KPIs, throw local and national organizations off balance, still wondering if they will survive another year.

  • INGOs that act as intermediaries between donors and local and national organizations place too much emphasis on ensuring donor compliance and too little on building strong partnerships with local actors and involving them in project design and decision making.

  • It is increasingly difficult for NGOs to hold donors to current accountability systems, which involve lengthy reporting and frequent follow-up visits. Faced with concerns about terrorism and corruption, the requirements are becoming more stringent and burdensome for local actors.

  • Although local and national NGOs play a huge role in humanitarian activities, the majority of their INGO partners still fail to reflect this in their public communications.

  • Donors and their international intermediaries often do not understand the pressures and constraints that local and national organizations face and lack the flexibility that would allow NGOs to adapt to real conditions on the ground.

  • In many countries, civil society is under siege by autocratic governments. This can translate into difficulties in registering as an NGO and severe constraints on the flow of international funds to local and national actors.

  • INGOs regularly engage in practices that are unfair and harmful to NGOs – for example, capturing exchange rate gains but forcing partners to absorb losses, offering letters of agreement that only the international partner has the right to terminate, refuse to allow NGOs to treat project staff salaries as project costs.

  • In some countries, central governments are devolving humanitarian responsibilities and functions to municipalities and villages. While this can potentially strengthen local leadership, it often happens without a parallel effort to build the capacity of more local government bodies.


Participants made recommendations to improve and accelerate the localization process and to strengthen local humanitarian leadership:

  • International actors should adopt policies requiring them to defer to local leaders.

  • International actors should provide direct and flexible funding to local and national NGOs.

  • International actors should recognize the full range of local and national actors involved in humanitarian work, including those whose mission is not primarily humanitarian.

  • Response coordination bodies need to be inclusive and both welcoming and accommodating to more local and less traditional humanitarian actors.

  • Funding policies and practices that leave effective local and national NGOs in a chronic struggle for survival must be challenged and replaced.

  • International actors should examine all their policies towards partners from the perspective of equity and equality.

  • International actors should emphasize compliance for the benefit of trust and should support downward and horizontal accountability, not just upward accountability to their donors.

  • Central governments should ensure that local governments are equipped to handle humanitarian disasters.

  • Local and national actors would benefit from increased access to training materials and research reports.

  • All actors should support the development of strong networks to strengthen the humanitarian response.

  • All actors should support local efforts to manage small crises that can turn into disasters.

  • All actors must work to protect civil society space.


Oxfam asked for comments on its own policies and partnerships.
On the positive side, participating local actors told us:

  • Oxfam invests in partner capacity building through in-depth training, coaching and mentoring and provides small project grants for institutional capacity building;

  • Oxfam is flexible with partners on contracts, addenda and work plans; and

  • Oxfam advocates on behalf of LHL with UN agencies, INGOs, donors and governments and acts as a connector and broker on LHL issues.

On the negative side, they said:

  • the percentage of humanitarian funding that Oxfam transfers to partners should be higher; currently it varies considerably from country to country;

  • A significant number of Oxfam offices require partners to submit monthly financial reports before the release of the next tranche of funding, which can lead to payment delays;

  • Oxfam’s support for partner overheads is limited; and

  • where Oxfam continues to implement cash-based programs directly, partners believe this indicates a lack of trust in local NGOs.
    Suggestions for improvement include:

  • expand funding opportunities to a wider range of NGOs;

  • explore and test new ways to fund local and national actors and support their leadership, especially women’s organisations, in humanitarian responses;

  • broker direct relations between partners and donors; and

  • providing training, including coaching and secondment, not only to help build the humanitarian capacity of partners, but also to help partners become stronger organisations.

Overall, the LHL Learning Series has shown an improvement in the state of local humanitarian leadership, largely due to the actions of local actors, who have become more vocal, more organized and more supported in their calls for the humanitarian system is local LED. Most of these efforts are taking place at subnational and national levels; the next step is to connect these pockets of local movement together for a truly powerful force for change. And this is where structures above the country such as INGOs, UN agencies and other international actors like Oxfam can provide support and complementarity: by offering technical resources, knowledge management, visibility, funding and a brokerage role.


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