COVID-19: The Importance of Investing in Local Humanitarian Leadership

4/2020 | Vincenzo Bollettino, Allyson Brown Kenney, Ngo Bibaa Lundi Anne, Farman Ullah, and Angela Wiens

At a Concern Worldwide-supported Nutrition Site in Rohingya Refugee Camp, Bangladesh, mother and caregivers are waiting to receive Nutritional Supplementary ration by maintaining social distance.

Photo: Shah Arafat Rahman / Concern Worldwide

More than any other humanitarian crisis in recent history, the novel coronavirus pandemic brings into stark view the imperative for humanitarian leadership. By its very nature, the pandemic forces communities and countries into a state of lockdown, restricting transit of people – including humanitarian actors – in or out, and so it shines a spotlight on the limits of both governments’ capacity to respond as well as the gaps in the international humanitarian aid system where local leadership, preparedness measures, and coordination need to be the most robust.

We recognize the complexity of challenges facing humanitarian actors today and the need for creative leadership in order to meet the needs of affected populations. The international community must take action on the grand bargain commitment to a “participation revolution,” by identifying and supporting local humanitarian leaders. There are plenty of talented, motivated, and creative individuals exercising leadership in some of the world’s least accessible and most inhospitable places. As an international community, we need to support their organization’s efforts through direct material assistance so that they remain incentivized to continue to support local populations in need.

The novel coronavirus underscores the extraordinary strain on countries coping with the virus to provide relief and demonstrates the limits of donors and international humanitarian agencies to prepare for and effectively respond to the most critical humanitarian emergencies. Governments have a duty of care to their citizens and in many instances will be the primary responders in the COVID-19 response.

Yet, many governments either lack adequate capacity to respond, or in some cases, may lack the necessary political will to provide for their citizens. Furthermore, there are millions of refugees and internally displaced persons globally that may fall through the cracks, but are served by front-line national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or community-based organizations. One can readily imagine that if the COVID-19 response has been dire in the global north, that it is going to be infinitely more devastating for governments that have only a fraction of the financial and medical resources.

What has already been done?

The humanitarian aid system has undergone profound change in recent years with reforms emphasizing more effective coordination and greater professionalization of staff. United Nations reforms in 2005 and 2011 resulted in increased provision of technical standards and greater proliferation of training and professional resources for international humanitarian aid agencies. While important steps, far more is required to meet the growing demands of a system dealing with fewer resources and greater needs.

The recently issued Global Humanitarian Response Plan appeals for 2 billon dollars in international humanitarian assistance is a move in the right direction, but will invariably fall far short of the trillions of dollars needed to meet the needs of the response, the lost income and secondary humanitarian impacts of the pandemic.

The international aid system’s delay to effectively coordinate and respond to COVID-19 is, in part, understandable. Even if a clear plan for international aid agencies to respond to a pandemic had been prepared, the virus has forced countries across the world into lockdown, curtailing travel and limiting access to populations already in need of humanitarian assistance. Under these extreme conditions, national and local actors are at the forefront of the responses in their own countries.

Local civil society organizations and NGOs, in particular, play a critical role in supporting and supplementing their health systems by raising awareness, training on best practices, or through direct medical care, especially for displaced populations that may not have access to proper healthcare facilities. Yet, little progress has been made to establish the mechanisms needed for donor governments to provide funding to these organizations, despite commitments made four years ago at the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016 to move in this direction.


A Concern Worldwide Nutrition Worker, wearing a mask in line with COVID-19 prevention guidelines, showing a flash card regarding referral pathway for malnourished children during Mother MUAC Training session at the Rohingya Refugee Camp.

Photo: Shah Arafat Rahman Concern Worldwide


The international community must renew its commitment to the localization of aid and seriously increase the scope and speed of the transition to cope with the global impact of COVID-19 and to better prepare for future crises. The localization of aid holds the promise of improving the quality, speed, and scale of humanitarian action provided by frontline local NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs).

Local NGOs and CBOs possess the contextual knowledge and access to populations-in-need required for effective humanitarian action and are always the first organizations to respond. However, they lack the resources and support from donor agencies that international humanitarian aid agencies enjoy.


The international donor community, NGOs and all humanitarian stakeholders have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that frontline local NGOs and CBOs have access to the protective gear needed by their health workers to continue to provide life-saving humanitarian programs in fragile contexts like Cameroon, Syria, Yemen, and dozens of other contexts like these around the globe. Donors should also increase funding to agencies seeking COVID-19 test kits for their own workers and for those agencies providing health services to populations they work with. 

Both international donors and international aid agencies should follow the lead of donors who have relaxed some bureaucratic requirements and increased flexibility in funding to enable frontline aid agencies to respond quickly and  protect their own staff from COVID-19 as they continue to provide life-saving food distributions, medical assistance, water sanitation and shelter services to populations in need. 

International donors should immediately agree to increase the amount of aid they provide directly to national NGOs and, at minimum, meet, if not exceed their current World Humanitarian Summit goal of providing 25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders.

International Aid Agencies

Respond to the urgent call for action from frontline health providers and humanitarians requesting additional resources needed to train community responders to support prevention, early detection and early action in responding to COVID-19. These training resources are often concentrated within the international aid system and are rarely available to local humanitarian agencies. These resources are vital now, but also over the longer term to enhance the ability of local aid organizations to respond to other humanitarian emergencies.

International aid agencies must work towards a future where national and international staff are afforded the same opportunities to build their own professional capacity, as well as that of their organizations. This is vital as local organizations are most attuned to the needs of affected communities.

Local Governments

Governments around the world must relax all tariffs and duties or bureaucratic processes that would hold up the delivery of aid. Equally important, governments must ensure the protection of civilians and do everything possible to secure humanitarian aid workers and medical facilities and medical staff.

Now is the time to follow through on the global commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016. Let’s reach out to those exercising leadership in some of the world’s most challenging humanitarian contexts and provide them the support they need. It is time for international donors to exercise leadership by making good on their former commitments and explore new ways to fulfill the first humanitarian principle, a commitment to support humanity. As Jagan Chapagain aptly noted “the value of strong local and national humanitarian response -backed by global resources where they are needed – has never been more evident than it is today.”

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each week, CDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

For related articles and reports checkout:


About the author

Vincenzo Bollettino
Director of Resilient Communities Program, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative 
Dr. Bollettino is the Director of Resilient Communities Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He also leads HHI’s engagement in the National NGO Program on Humanitarian Leadership. Prior to his current academic appointment, Dr. Bollettino served for five years as Executive Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Dr. Bollettino has twenty-five years of professional and academic experience in disaster preparedness and resilience, civil-military engagement in emergencies, and humanitarian leadership. He has spent that past eighteen years of his career at Harvard University in research, teaching, and administration. His current research focuses on civil military engagement during humanitarian emergencies, disaster preparedness and resilience, the professionalization of the humanitarian aid field and humanitarian leadership.

Dr. Bollettino has managed several large training and policy development initiatives related to disaster resilience, humanitarian leadership, and civil military coordination. He has designed security reporting systems and program evaluations for field security measures in complex emergencies, authored several publications related to disaster resilience and humanitarian assistance, and has consulted with numerous international nongovernmental organization and UN agencies.

Dr. Bollettino has taught courses on research design, peace building, and international politics at the Harvard Extension School. Dr. Bollettino came to Harvard University on a post-doctoral fellowship with the Program on Non-violent Sanctions and Cultural Survival at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He completed his Ph.D. at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Dr. Bollettino previously served on the board of ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance), and is currently the President of the Action Against Hunger (ACF) International Scientific Committee.

Allyson Brown Kenney
Director, Capacity Building, Concern Worldwide U.S.
Allyson is an international humanitarian and development professional with more than two decades of experience as both practitioner and executive spanning the disciplines of grant management, program design and development, fundraising, strategic planning, and representation and advocacy.  Currently, she is pleased to serve as the lead coordinator for the National NGO Program on Humanitarian Leadership.

For more than twelve years, she has held a variety of positions at Concern Worldwide U.S.  For much of that time she managed the organization’s Child Survival grant funding and provided technical and liaison support to Concern’s maternal and child health programs in Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti and Rwanda.  She later oversaw its active global citizenship outreach and engagement program, which included advocacy efforts focusing on Concern’s food security and nutrition portfolio.  Concurrently, she served as Concern’s acting U.S. Operations Director, managing technical and operational staff, overseeing emergency and development U.S. government grants, providing high-level representation, and temporarily deploying to Haiti for the 2010 earthquake response.

Earlier, she worked as International Programs Manager at the World Rehabilitation Fund, as a clinical social worker serving New York City families affected by 9/11, and as Assistant Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations with Boston University’s A Different September Foundation.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Peace and Conflict Studies from the College of the Holy Cross, and a Master of Science in Social Work degree and a Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University. Allyson lives outside New York City with her husband and 5-year old daughter.

Ngo Bibaa Lundi Anne
Assistant Executive Director, Reach Out N.G.O, Cameroon
Ngo Bibaa Lundi-Anne is a Public Health expert with 12 years of experience developing and managing health interventions in hard-to-reach, post-conflict and conflict-affected communities. She is currently the Assistant Executive Director (AED) of Reach Out N.G.O where she supervises humanitarian activities of the organisation and leads the implementation of humanitarian health projects. She led the first Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM+) project for IDPs in conflict-affected communities in the South West Region of Cameroon. Furthermore, Lundi-Anne is a Chevening Alumni from the
Queen Mary University of London where she holds a Master’s degree in Global Health Systems, Theory and Policy.

Farman Ullah
Farman Ullah, from Pakistan, holds a Master degree in Management Sciences and availed different trainings on Peace building and Disaster Management. Farman has over 9 years of experience in the non-profit sector with an NGO namely “Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP)” which is part of “Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN)” working across Pakistan. SRSP is the biggest Organization of KP province working both in Development and in Humanitarian Initiatives. Currently he is engaged as Programme Officer Operations looking after the operations under humanitarian wing in relief, recovery and resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Pakistan. Further, he has worked in South Sudan as Area Coordinator for a 6 months assignment placed at Nyamlel NBEG state. He is also a member of Pak-US Alumni Network (PUAN) and has studied in Lincoln University of Missouri US.

Angela Wiens
Director of the Humanitarian Response Training Unit, International Medical Corps
Angela is the Director of the Humanitarian Response Training Unit at International Medical Corps, where she leads a team implementing training projects targeting multiple audiences, including government representatives and international and national NGOs, in the various aspects of humanitarian response and coordination. Angela also works on International Medical Corps’ gender initiatives, as well as providing support in the areas of gender­ based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse. Prior to that, she was International Medical Corps’ Desk Officer for the Great Lakes and West Africa Region, with a portfolio that included Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Angela has a Master’s Degree in International Development with a concentration in Gender from American University in Washington, DC, which included research on women’s empowerment and gender integration into development programming in Eritrea. Previously, Angela has done communications, fundraising, and programmatic work with Africare. She also spent five years as an editorial manager of academic journals and other publications at the American College of Rheumatology.