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Transferring power to local CVA actors : Rhetoric vs Reality

9 November 2020 — By José Jodar

One of the major changes we’ve seen between the publication of the first State of the World’s Cash report in 2018 and this year’s report is an increased focus on the importance of localisation. If taken seriously, localisation could shake the foundations of the humanitarian system and radically transform the ways in which aid is delivered. There has been some progress in relation to Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) but overall more talk than action. Localisation can be an empty buzzword that is sometimes used to cover a lack of action. In this blog Jose Jodar explores why localization is being held back and how power can be better balanced between international, national and local actors.

Localisation: challenges and changes

The State of the World’s Cash 2020 (SOWC2020) report finds that most of the cash practitioners interviewed agree that increasing the role and agency of local actors in CVA response is important. However, they also see  little concrete progress in this direction. While 57% of those surveyed believe that national and local organisations have been increasingly involved in the implementation of CVA over the last two years, many also feel that important barriers persist for effective participation and leadership of local stakeholders. There is not much clarity on how to resolve this.

Making the shift to a more locally-driven humanitarian system is important, but will not be without its challenges. Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, explained at the SOWC2020 launch that “(for international organisations) to succeed in working with local actors means giving up power” and advised the humanitarian community: “Be humble, paint a picture of what success looks like.

Getting there will involve humility, sacrifice and genuine recognition of the value that each party brings”.

Localisation is happening with or without a push at the global level and is being accelerated by the current pandemic. Gang Karume, Technical Advisor with Rebuild Hope for Africa said “COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to make progress on localisation. Overnight, international actors left. Local actors, who are better integrated in communities, carried on the work. We need to build on this.”

CVA and localisation: pulling together or pulling apart?

The 2020 Grand Bargain report warns of a tension between the push to build a more inclusive system and the push towards further large-scale programmes that can marginalize local responders. It is possible that as the use of CVA increases, fewer, larger actors will dominate whilst local responders take a primary role as implementing partners – often with very limited voice in programme design. SOWC2020 shows that almost two thirds of all CVA is now delivered by just 2 actors – WFP and UNHCR – an increase on the previous report.  But as Key Aid Consulting’s recent report finds, for large scale operational models to deliver quality assistance there must be a critical role for local actors. There is a need to find a way towards a more diverse and transparent space, where local actors have real decision-making power.

More CVA and a more local system go hand in hand: Because CVA operates alongside other financial flows (remittances, social protection, peer to peer giving), it offers unique opportunities for establishing new partnerships and identifying different types of collaboration. SOWC2020 recognizes that in the last two years, cash has driven a more diverse humanitarian ecosystem, while also coordinating better with national social protection systems. New relationships have been built with local civil society organisations, governments, the private sector and market actors.

The establishment of a sub-workstream on Cash and Local partnership within the Grand Bargain Cash Workstream has been a positive step towards greater localisation.

Another positive step towards greater localisation is the establishment of a sub-workstream on Cash and Local partnership within the Grand Bargain Cash Workstream. There is now more opportunity for an open discussion on cash and localisation, and improved connection between local respondents and the CVA space.

But this is far from sufficient and progress is slow. Talking about localisation in CVA discussion forums, establishing more partnerships between international and local actors and showing good intentions regarding the inclusion of local actors in coordination structures are all positive steps towards a fairer system. However, the real solution lies in a true transfer of power to local actors.

Tackling the underlying issues that hold localisation back

The Grand Bargain commits signatories, by 2020, to channel 25% of all funding to local actors “as directly as possible”. While 86% of signatories report “some progress” against this, the data shows that local actors still struggle to access direct international humanitarian funding. Local actors say repeatedly that even when they access funding it is largely channeled through international actors who make key strategic and design decisions, leaving them as implementing partners of a pre-designed programme. They also insist that the ways in which they are funded – short term, ad hoc and with minimal support costs – do not enable them to build the capacity and systems necessary for quality CVA response.

The lack of recognition of the added value that local actors bring, a partnership culture weighted against them and insufficient investment in local capacities are only a few of the key barriers that need to be addressed. These systemic biases (and many more besides) can only be overcome through action – words are not enough. In order to truly shift the focus onto the cash recipients, local systems must be valued, strengthened and adequately represented in decision-making.

Establishing a more local and plural humanitarian system, and transferring power between international, national and local actors, is a matter of commitment. As Gang Karume, from Rebuild Hope for Africa, said “for this [shift of power] to happen we really need to stop hypocrisy, we need to stop institutional racism, we need to stop empty speeches and false promises. Look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves frankly, is this done to support the most vulnerable people or is this just a shameful cover to serve our own purposes? This is really the turning point to support the system but we need to question many things before you could say we are in the right direction”.

Are we, as humanitarian actors, able to do that? We’d love to hear your thoughts – feel free to comment below.