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Charter...for What Change?

As part of our World Humanitarian Day series Justin Corbett reflects on localisation of humanitarian response arguing that a shift in the humanitarian paradigm is essential, but more direct funding to local groups will have its own dangers. Justin has worked with NGOs on humanitarian responses in a number of countries in Africa and Asia, including as an advisor for Paung Ku during the 2008 response to Cyclone Nargis.

The Charter for Change seems to be a step in the right direction.

If honoured, the C4C and other initiatives from the World Humanitarian Summit should significantly improve the opportunities for national and local CSOs to take much greater leadership in humanitarian programmes.

This is important, and for Myanmar it provides a real opportunity for civil society to show how much more it can do when given the chance.

The assumption is that local local organisations, being closer to local realities, are potentially able to respond more quickly, effectively, efficiently and context-sensitively than UN agencies or INGOs. They are often better placed to identify and build on the opportunities for self-help, which in turn can strengthen long-term resilience. Similarly they have the local socio-political understanding for how best to work with local duty bearers and, if appropriate, demand better of them.

With the greater access to funds that the Charter will enable, we are all hoping to see Myanmar civil society demonstrate these improvements in practice.

But it will also have to protect itself from the dangers that will accompany the grants: the same pressures and forces that have contributed to much of the formal aid system becoming ‘unfit for purpose’...and which could erode the very strengths that local organisations currently offer.

For example, under the banner of ‘administrative efficiency’ fewer large (but highly demanding) grants are favoured over multiple small ones. So the pressure is to rapidly grow as an organisation. Small may be beautiful in supporting grass roots, but not in grant-led humanitarian aid.

The current system also favours risk-averse, one-size-fits-all, blueprint interventions that can impede flexibility and deter responsive changes to agreed plans...log frames still rule.

Most grants dictate which interventions are permitted within the ‘humanitarian silo’ (e.g. food, medicine, shelter) and which are not (e.g. education, conflict-transformation, good-governance, culture and arts): holistic, people-led crisis programming will often not be funded if it contravenes such norms.

Finally, there are strong incentives to prioritise upward (usually financial) accountability and donor compliance over downward accountability to communities

And on top of all these pressures, the current institutional culture of humanitarian aid does not yet believe in empowering disaster survivors themselves to take the lead in responding.

We have yet to see a real paradigm shift that recognises and enables the full potential of supporting crisis- affected communities themselves to lead their own responses. And there are few signs yet of the humility needed in any part of the aid system, international or national, that would indicate a real change in thinking or attitude has evolved.

So, are Myanmar NGOs and Charter supporters ready to resist the pressures that will accompany increased funding? Will Myanmar civil society continue to be the champion of the grass roots ..or become the champion of the next grant? Will local NGOs retain their essential, people-led, bottom-up, creative nature, or become re-created in the image of the INGOs whose role they will take on?

It is worth remembering that many of the large INGOs that are critiqued today as corporate, aid-driven, market-hungry enterprises, were once small, grass-roots, hands-on, often politically rebellious local NGOs in their mother countries.

These are not reasons to slow down the sign-up to the Charter for Change, which remains a great opportunity. But they are reasons to ensure that we all proceed with our eyes wide open. We need strong principles and a set of collective strategies on how to ensure civil society integrity and vibrancy are not weakened.

There is still much to do to achieve the end goal of maximising community agency and empowering the most vulnerable. This revolution will not come from above.

It will have to come from the local NGOs, who must not only protect themselves from the dangers of institutionalised aid, but must also ensure that the baton of leadership for crisis response continues to get passed down the line until it reaches the affected communities themselves.

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