Localisation and the Capacity Building Conundrum…


So I’m starting out on my new job, and slowly re-entering the world of NGOs and Humanitarian Aid (my last job was slightly removed from the direct aid delivery itself and more at a consortia level).

One of the core pillars of my career to date has been capacity building, which I’ve been working on for a few years now, alongside various other things, and which draws from my previous career as a teacher as well as other roles I’ve had here and there. I had an interesting chat with a colleague recently which left me doing some reflecting on the whole concept…

First of all, there is great controversy over what capacity building is – some people think of it as just training, or learning more broadly, others think it incorporates knowledge management and research, skills-building and a range of other things. Another colleague informed me recently that “there is no such thing as capacity building – you can only develop a person’s existing capacity, you cannot build it, therefore there is no such thing as capacity building, only capacity development”.

Which is a bummer as my new job title involves the word “capacity builder”    🙂

In general, I like to think of it as helping people (humanitarian staff more specifically) to do their jobs better. And it often does involve training in my view, (though not always) but also sometimes knowing where the right tools and templates are, or having access to the latest research, procedures or guidance. The humanitarian world is always shifting, and people who knew exactly what they were doing 5 years ago are suddenly being told they are doing it wrong (usually as a new buzzword takes hold, or organisations shift focus from giving stuff, to empowering people and communities, etc etc).

Which brings me to the localisation agenda, which is at the heart of this particular capacity building conundrum.

Localisation, for those of you not in the know, is the latest humanitarian buzzword. It’s not new, but has simply been repackaged (it used to be an emphasis on partners and partnership).

The general idea, which is fairly simple, is a good one. Rather than having massive wealthy, (often white/western) juggernauts of international NGOs descend on a country in a crisis to sort it all out, which appears somewhat colonial in nature, one should build up (or develop if you must) the capacity of local organisations and small grassroots NGOs to respond instead. Local NGOs know the people, community structures, politics, environment, risks and current crisis generally better than any INGO, and in addition they tend to be the first people on the ground, as they were in fact already there.

“Well that’s all terribly logical!” I hear you shout.

Indeed, it is, and many international organisations try to implement through local partners as much as they can (which is why the localisation agenda used to be called the partnership agenda or something similar).

Still with me so far? Good.

So why are we still talking about it? “Why hasn’t it happened by now? Why are the huge INGOs still needed at all?” I hear you cry….

Three main reasons (actually there are loads but these are the three that spring immediately to my mind):

  1. Donor Funding – most donors are not willing to give up millions of dollars to tiny small organisations who have never managed multi-million grants before. They want some sort of guarantee, and this is often easier by going through an intermediary – shifting the risk. Give the money to a large INGO and they can transfer it in smaller chunks to their small partners. If things go wrong, the INGO may have to suffer some of the loss, and the INGO will have multiple partners to spread the risk. The INGO is also likely to have much stronger financial controls, internal auditors and a whole range of support to ensure the money doesn’t go missing. Local NGOs rarely have internal capacity of that scale to cope with very large sums of money.
  2. Physical capacity and sustainability – Most local NGOs have small staff numbers, and can be overwhelmed by a massive scale emergency. They might need a big juggernaut NGO to swoop in with a team of 5 HR advisors who can recruit 100 staff in the space of 2 weeks, because that’s what they are trained to do. Also, big INGOs can afford to keep a smaller crew of trained staff on hand during the non-emergency phases, ready to scale-up as needed, while smaller NGOs just don’t have funding – they are often cyclical, so in times of non-emergency, small NGOs cannot afford to retain staff who have been trained and know what to do, if there is nothing for them to be doing. Which is closely linked to point 3….
  3. The Brain Drain – This is the crux of the capacity building conundrum. Big INGOs want to train up and develop the capacity of smaller local NGOs so that they can manage the next emergency by themselves. But local NGOs usually pay local salaries, while bigger NGOs (with their national campaigns about women’s economic empowerment and fair pay and living wages) usually pay highly competitive rates. So if you train up all the local staff to do the same job as the INGOs, the local staff usually say “thanks very much” and apply to work at the INGO instead, on a better salary, leaving the local NGO with no trained staff left who are able to respond.

In other words, by attempting to build capacity locally, we end up often hiring the same trained/experienced local staff in a bit of a vicious cycle.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a lovely Liberian guy I met while working on the Typhoon response in the Philippines. He was working for a UN organisation, on an expatriate salary, and was highly skilled at his job. Over a beer and a BBQ one evening in 2014, we were discussing the Ebola outbreak, which was just beginning at the time in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

This guy was Liberian, and commented that he really wanted his next posting to be in Liberia, so that he could help his own people, and work on a response where he already had a huge amount of local knowledge and language. However, were he to be posted to Liberia, as a national staff member, he would not qualify for an expatriate salary, which would mean taking a massive pay cut. Instead he had requested to be posted to Sierra Leone, which was the next best thing.

It made me very sad that the people with the most skills and knowledge couldn’t be paid based on that, rather than their nationality, even though I am very conscious that the national/expatriate salary scales are logical and very often mandatory based on local labour policies, risk of disrupting labour markets and economies etc.

So as I enter my new job, attempting to build/develop the skills, knowledge and capacity of staff and partners around the world, I wonder if localisation is a realistic goal for NGOs to have, or how it could be done differently, if at all…

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