A Grand Bargain to foster local leadership in humanitarian sector in Myanmar

A Grand Bargain to foster local leadership in humanitarian sector in Myanmar
Victims of the recent flooding in Mon State, Myanmar. Photo: EPA

Highlighting the role of women in addressing humanitarian crises, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out “from supporting civilians caught up in crisis to addressing disease outbreaks, women humanitarians are on the front lines”.  

The role of women and strengthening local leadership in humanitarian support is increasingly acknowledged by the global humanitarian community as strategic and operational imperative to achieve gender equality and inclusion.

This year’s World Humanitarian Day (Aug 19th), highlights and acknowledges the exemplary role of women in humanitarian response and leadership.  It is often women who risk their lives as first responders in crisis situations.  Women and children face significantly higher vulnerability as non-combatant civilians in situations of armed conflict; they are also most vulnerable during natural disasters and calamities.

Conflict continues to remain as a main driver of humanitarian response. The global humanitarian overview-2018 points out that over 134 million people, spread across 42 countries are in need of humanitarian aid and protection requiring. Focusing on saving lives, alleviate suffering based on humanitarian principles require significant resources, expertise and effort from all sections of the society. With a shortfall of over 40 per cent of humanitarian resource needs due to the aid fatigue and economic downturn in many developed countries, channeling available resources efficiently to reach the communities remains an important goal for global humanitarian actors. It is in this context, localisation of leadership assumes importance.

With protracted conflict, climate change induced and man-made natural disasters like monsoon floods affecting large number of people in Myanmar, the need for robust humanitarian aid delivery architecture is evolving in the country with many international and national organisations committed to provide support to the affected people. Renewed armed conflict in Kachin and Shan States and stalemate in the resolution of the Rakhine situation in terms of repatriation of displaced communities, has rendered more than a million population in dire need of humanitarian assistance. This year torrential monsoon rains have affected several parts of the country with over 150,000 people affected since June. Close to 80,000 people are still in temporary shelters (as of 11 August) and they need food and non food items urgently, and rehabilitation and restoration of livelihoods on a long term basis.

Affected communities and their leaders, remain first responders with their own mechanisms of survival, safety and protection - often supported in a small way by CSOs, CBOs, charities and national NGOs. Government has the primary responsibility to support, assist and protect the communities that require humanitarian help and ensure long term rehabilitation and welfare. But these are not always sufficient. With the tradition of ‘charity and voluntary giving’, large number of local aid agencies and philanthropic organisations remain at the forefront mobilizing human and financial resources in serving the communities. They offer their time, effort and experience. Such efforts often meet short-term disaster relief but long term rehabilitation and resettlement of communities affected by long drawn crises like conflict needs sustained support of global partners. International humanitarian agencies (INGOs), international donors, UN family organisations who secure and translate humanitarian support and commitment of the global north to the affected countries are important players. They do play a significant role in Myanmar’s humanitarian landscape.  Their effort towards building local leadership in humanitarian aid sector is increasingly been acknowledged. 

There is a global effort in strengthening the local leadership in humanitarian response as part of empowering the local and shift the power dynamics of the aid sector. The challenge before humanitarian agencies who otherwise have vast experience in providing assistance is to continue to evolve the most effective and efficient ways to respond faster and quicker. This requires quick data, information, access, logistics and decision making which can be harnessed with the local leadership.

Role, decision making power and contribution of the local leadership is also identified as the game changer in altering the politics of humanitarian aid, North-South divide in aid sector and building a genuine solidarity among the humanity. This requires significant transformation in ways of working within humanitarian aid sector.  There are efforts in this direction in Myanmar, which need closer examination to identify challenges and bottlenecks. 

Accelerating Localisation through Partnerships (ALTP), a multi country project to strengthen local leadership in humanitarian sector is one such example. Led by Christian Aid, a consortium of international agencies have initiated this project to enhance the local leadership in humanitarian sector.  For many INGOs this would mean identifying new ways of working, stepping out of their comfort zone, a shift in power relations and giving up their own decision making powers.  And for many local agencies it would mean strengthening their own capacities, skills, conceptual understanding and building professionalism to meet the international standards and quality in delivery of programs. The spirit of such an initiative stems from the belief - which was articulated by INGOs and local agencies of Myanmar at a recent workshop on this subject - that ‘empowering local orgnizations to take a lead in humanitarian actions would bring in ground level perspectives into policy making’ and ‘it requires deliberate actions by INGOs to open up spaces, roles and decision making to the local entities. INGOs need to walk the talk’.

Several local national NGO leaders view this development positively, but remain skeptical, as local leadership development involves significant commitment of resources by INGOs and donors for local institutional development.   Enthusiastic initial efforts towards localisation are often stymied by bureaucratic, and the slow and inflexible ways of working of large organisations. INGOs and donors need to accommodate localisation as part of their organisation-wide strategy.

The global ‘grand bargain’ of humanitarian aid agencies, launched at the World Humanitarian Summit (2016), targets 25% of global humanitarian resources to be channeled directly through local leadership by 2020. It is a laudable goal and possible to reach, only with sustained efforts towards institution building of local agencies. The Grand Bargain, which has been endorsed by over 60 humanitarian agencies, also identifies the need for capacity strengthening, partnerships, and coordination in order to ensure effective local leadership to deliver humanitarian support to the communities.  This commitment has to work as a catalyst towards system change. As a recent progress report (of 2018) on the grand bargain points out ‘localisation is now a key normative principle of humanitarian action’ …’though there is no system-wide shift in operational practices…. It helped to drive progress, providing incentives for and facilitating sharing lessons and experiences on implementation a localisation approach’.

It is in this context, accelerating localisation through partnerships in Myanmar assumes additional significance. It is not only a moral imperative that local wisdom, information, data and leadership inform the decision making, but also offers significant economic and efficiency dividends to involve local leadership in humanitarian support.  At the same time, core humanitarian principles and accountability standards need to be followed which becomes cornerstones for all humanitarian actions.

While on one side Myanmar is moving in terms of economic and political reforms, this effort of strengthening local leadership in the humanitarian aid sector is significant which enables the local humanitarian leaders to demonstrate enhanced capacities and be able to leverage resources without having to resort to the help and support of intermediary agencies. It is a long-haul journey.