The power of local as a force for humanitarian action

You are as only as good as your team. And nowhere is this more applicable than in fragile, conflict-affected countries. Yet many humanitarian organisations working in these volatile areas are not maximising a crucial component of their team: local people.

In times of crisis, it is crucial to have people who understand the history, culture and context of a country in order to enact an effective humanitarian response. Without it, life-saving projects struggle to get off the ground.

The success of delivering aid hinges on having a strong local presence. A South Sudanese driver will have more success delivering food than a foreign worker using Google Maps and their knowledge of tribal structures will increase the chances of passing through checkpoints hassle-free. During the rainy season, when the roads become impassable, for those steering the barges laden with aid along the White Nile an encyclopaedic understanding of the local geography will ensure they get to their destination – speaking the local dialect is key if they do take a wrong turn.

A local workforce is also a crucial bridge to create trust. For example, while Covid is hitting African nations hardest, vaccine scepticism remains high and many communities can only been won over by local vaccine ambassadors. There is also the real possibility of hostility within communities if not enough of the local population is brought in to assist with a project.

Employing from the community also gives a much-needed shot in the arm to the economy, which can be even greater when female participation is strong. Too often the role of women is underplayed, despite their participation in projects being crucial for their success. How can programmes that involve only half the population be more than 50% effective?

There is still a role for international expertise as there are often skill gaps that can only be plugged with outside help.

But responses to crises work best when the whole team gets involved. Women and men from local communities are the foundation, working alongside international bodies in a symbiotic relationship with knowledge and skills sharing for a combined humanitarian impact.

Until this is more widely accepted, the true potential of humanitarian action will remain unrealised.