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Local and national organisations doing more for less: COVID-19 and Localisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Necessity, more than choice, is pushing local actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the forefront of responding to humanitarian crises since Covid-19.

As explored in a new report by Humanitarian Advisory Group and GLOW Consultants for Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), the global pandemic has challenged habitual ways of thinking within the humanitarian sector in both countries, with an even greater reliance on local and national organisations (LNOs) in non-governmental and civil society spaces.

The study was built around the HAG and PIANGO Localisation Measurement Framework and extended HAG’s recent research on how Covid-19 impacted localisation in Myanmar. Similar to HAG’s analysis in Myanmar, research on Afghanistan and Pakistan highlights that the shifting roles between international organisations and LNOs is not addressing the inequalities that localisation attempts to solve.

Local humanitarian actors are being recognised; but are taking greater risks

Afghanistan and Pakistan provide contrasting examples of states with deep historical, intersecting humanitarian crises. In both, the pandemic has added an extra layer of risks and challenges for local actors. The closing of borders and reduced international staff presence has seen a greater reliance on LNOs to access communities and beneficiaries, continuing the need for localisation. The report finds that, despite shrinking space for civil society organisations, this has led to local and national staff taking on increased risks in often challenging security environments, as recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate. Critical to these problems is how to adequately support smaller actors who face challenges from remote work to funding.

As challenges increase, funding remains insufficient

The greater responsibilities on LNOs since Covid-19 have not been accompanied by improved funding. Similar to other humanitarian contexts, funding requirements in Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasing as more people become vulnerable in the face of the pandemic and its economic impact (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Humanitarian funding needs and contributions in Afghanistan and Pakistan¹

Donors often talked about their commitment to provide more funding to LNOs, but it was not reflected in actual re-distribution of funds or LNO perceptions of increased support. As an international organisation respondent shared, one of the donors “had a global decision that the UN had to purchase the PPE – from partners outside the country. This was when the rest of the world was running short of PPE, but Pakistan had high-quality PPE, including masks that matched our [international organisation’s] and other global standards available.” They concluded: “It’s the practical aspects that restrict the localisation work.”

Financial tracking data from the United Nations Office for Coordination Humanitarian Affairs shows there is inconsistency of funding for LNOs and international organisations – in both Pakistan and Afghanistan – with international and United Nations bodies receiving the lion’s share (figure 2). LNOs also faced increased difficulty accessing funding compared to larger international organisations as banks and financial institutions limited physical cash transactions, which LNOs depend on.

Figure 2: Humanitarian funding distribution in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2020 (by funding recipient organisation type)

Partners and power moves online

LNOs are recognised as being on the frontline providing support to communities during crises. After the onset of the pandemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, moving online provided more opportunities for participation in coordination meetings or for staff to upskill, but this often benefitted international staff more than locals. Importantly, decision-making power was still disproportionately held by international actors. Our sector-wide survey demonstrated the perceived gap about the representation of LNOs in meetings and forums (figure 3).

Figure 3: Survey responses on the representation of LNOs in international-national coordination forums

The report also highlights how partnerships shifted online and allowed for greater collaboration between LNOs and international actors. However, this did not trickle down to smaller, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that felt left behind. The pandemic did provide new opportunities for international actors to engage with local NGOs to deliver health-related services, re-establishing partnerships that had previously lapsed.

Supporting the shift from necessity to choice

The paper demonstrates how international actors are relying on LNOs more than ever since Covid-19, but without fulfilling their commitments to localisation under the Grand Bargain. This increased dependence on local staff in Afghanistan and Pakistan stems from necessity rather than choice. The power relations that existed before the pandemic have yet to noticeably change, despite local actors taking on greater risks to serve the communities they live and work in. Donors and international actors failed to allocate and share funding to appropriately reflect the vital work of their local and national partners. While the move to remote work provided greater opportunities for local actors to participate in coordination and decision-making, international organisations held the upper hand in quickly adapting to the pandemic response. The pandemic shows yet again that local actors are essential in providing humanitarian aid to their communities in times of crisis. What’s required now is for international actors to fully embrace their commitments to localisation and support the shift.

Read the report Covid-19 – Implications for Localisation: A Case Study of Afghanistan and Pakistan, here.

Image: Provided by ACTED-Pakistan

¹Sources: UNOCHA Financial Tracking Service (2021a; b); UNOCHA Humanitarian InSight (2021a;b)