If you want to support, vacate the space

03/2021 | Sudhanshu S. Singh

After having worked for over three decades, mainly with international NGOs (INGOs) within India and elsewhere, and feeling disillusioned with the international aid architecture, I decided to return to India to establish Humanitarian Aid International (HAI), together with a few other like minded people. HAI aims to evolve on an Indian value system, resourced by Indians, including people of Indian origin, to work across India while also trying to complement the government’s efforts on South-South cooperation. The realisation came soon about how difficult it is for Indian NGOs to access even Indian funding as Indian fundraising space is largely controlled and accessed by country offices of INGOs, registered in India and calling themselves an Indian organisation. That compelled me to wonder: Are we in a new phase of colonialism?


Modern-day colonialism

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines colonialism as a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another [1] . This definition is so true even now. One aspect of this colonisation is that Indian NGOs rely on intermediary INGOs to access not only international funding, but also the funding domestically available. This financial control also gives leverage to INGOs to dictate policies and use local NGOs as cheap implementors by transferring risks. 

In a modern sense, colonialism is a general description of the state of subjection – political, economic, intellectual – of a non-European society as a result of the process of colonial organisation. Colonialism deprives a society of its freedom and its earth and, above all, it leaves its people intellectually and morally disoriented [2]. Does the North-led aid architecture not reflect that? I believe it does, and that the process of ‘localisation’ itself is quite exploitative. I will make this case in the article below. 

UN OCHA publishes Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) every year. According to the GHO 2021, 235.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance this year, which is significantly higher from the figure of 167.6 million from the preceding year. As aspect of this steep hike is likely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the below table shows number of people in need of humanitarian assistance increasing every year, with the exception of 2019:

Year People in Need People to receive aid Funding required
GHO 2020 167.6 million (⬆27.3%) 108.8 million (⬆16.2%) $28.8 billion (⬆31.5%)
GHO 2019 131.7 million (⬇2.9%) 93.6 million (⬆3.0%) $21.9 billion (⬇2.7%)
GHO 2018 135.7 million (⬆5.5%) 90.9 million (⬇2.0%) $22.5 billion (⬆1.4%)
GHO 2017 128.6 million (⬆2.6%) 92.8 million (⬆5.9%) $22.2 billion (⬆10.4%)
GHO 2016 125.3 million (⬆60.8%) 87.6 million (⬆52.3%) $20.1 billion (⬆22.6%)
GHO 2015 77.9 million  57.5 million $16.4 billion 


There are 34 countries facing protracted crises with no immediate hope of restoration of peace and normalcy. Where do we find these people in need of humanitarian assistance and the countries facing crises? Obviously in the global South. However, where do we find the frameworks, policies and principles emerging to manage grants and programmes in these countries? Where do we find the discussions happening? Who speaks and who listens, irrespective of the fact, who knows better about the problems, about the contexts and solutions? The obvious answer – in the Global North – reflects the flaws and the pattern of neo-colonialism. Furthermore, although growing, the intent is scant to alter that, and this is why we see reform processes not yielding desired results one after the other. At the end of the day, what matters more is, who controls more money, decision-making process and the coordination platforms.


Commitments without enough accountability

Being part of several reform processes, I shouldn’t have been too optimistic with the key frameworks that emerged out of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) held in May 2016, which triggered the much-needed discourse on localisation. However, I did feel enthusiastic once again seeing what was enshrined in Agenda for Humanity, Grand Bargain and Charter4Change, and also quite a few passionate individuals in the global North who really wanted to see a change this time. It didn’t take too long to start feeling disillusioned once again. 

The self-reports against the commitments made to Agenda for Humanity continued for three years and then stopped without significant evidence that much was achieved, particularly against the key transformations of ‘reinforce, do not replace, national and local systems’ and ‘invest in local capacities’. What did it change? What does it still plan to change? 

The same lack of evidence is clear with the Grand Bargain, particularly the work stream 2, which also talked about passing on at least 25% of funding to local and national actors and developing a ‘localisation marker’ to measure direct and indirect funding going to them. 


The implications of defining ‘local’ and ‘national’ actors on homegrown organizations

The Localisation Marker Working Group (LMWG), established for this purpose and dominated by international actors, concluded in no time that developing a localisation marker wasn’t possible in absence of a baseline, therefore the focus shifted to defining who the local and national actors are. However, after a series of meetings, the LMWF came up with the following definition of local and national actors:

Local and national non-state actors are “Organizations engaged in relief that are headquartered and operating in their own aid recipient country and which are not affiliated to an international NGO. 

However, active backdoor lobbying started, primarily by the country offices of INGOs, to dilute the definition, which they succeeded by adding the following footnote: 

 A local actor is not considered to be affiliated merely because it is part of a network, confederation or alliance wherein it maintains independent fundraising and governance systems. 

This text, approved by the Grand Bargain signatories is now part of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Definition’s Paper, which remains the sole source to determine who the local and national actors are. One key stakeholder admitted that the definition was diluted through the footnote as country offices didn’t want to lose the 25% funding committed for local and national actors.  Southern members of the LMWG like me kept opposing the changes made but with no success. That compels me to think, Southern actors are at times included in the discussion process to showcase that the process was inclusive even though decisions are still made according to what suits the interest of powerful international actors. 

Almost five years down the line, no efforts are being made to fix the flawed definition and establish a localisation marker. Furthermore, these are not even the talking points during the discussion on the future of Grand Bargain. Most probably, the target of 25% funding to local and national actors would be changed to a quality indicator, measuring which would remain a matter of perception and claims, instead of being based on evidence. Since I was also part of the LMWG and witnessed the efforts to dilute the definitions of ‘local and national actors’, I authored a paper for A4EP entitled, ‘IASC Definition of ‘Local’ and ‘National Actors’ – a barrier to achieving Grand Bargain localisation commitments’.

Country offices of international actors are now widely perceived as a key barrier to the localisation process. Many of them keep calling themselves ‘local or national actors’ referring to the IASC definition.


India in the new phase of aid colonisation

According to me, defining local and national actors is not a legal but ethical debate. In India, we find country offices of almost every INGO. Unlike us, they didn’t start from scratch. They started with millions of dollars of their international funding to make inroads in the domestic fundraising space. The annual budget of their fundraising desk is several times more than the total funding we have raised during our four and half year’s existence. For many of these INGOs, their HQs are international actors and country offices are local and national actors. Consequently, instead of passing on the committed 25% funding to homegrown local actors, they are denying our own domestic funds because of their resource clout. All the localisation boxes would be ticked without bringing about any changes and strengthening of the local response mechanism. For some INGOs, and even for some multilateral agencies, localisation means localising their own operational presence. Some INGOs, particularly faith-based ones, have even given a new and secular name to their country office to attract funding from all sources. Some faith-based NGOs have adjusted their website contents according to the country context. While their HQ website maintains strong religious identity, the country office website goes mild or silent in order to attract funding from all sources. Some of these faith-based NGOs have biased recruitment policies, i.e., recruiting staff only from their faith, but go silent on faith in their fundraising drive, in order to attract funding from all sources.  

India perhaps presents one of the worst examples of this new phase of aid colonisation. Since India is one of the fastest growing economies, since it is mandatory for the corporate sector to spend at least 2% of the annual profit on social responsibility, and since India has a fast-growing middle class willing to contribute towards social cause, it has become a favourite destination for international actors to set up their country offices here. This is at the cost of a very rich and old Indian civil society organisations, which evolved through various movements in the last few centuries.

As an example, while responding to Covid-19 in India, I received a call from a leading Indian news channel, offering to run a two-hour telethon for us to raise funds for our Covid-19 response. We were assured of raising between $300,000-$600,000. However, we had to invest approximately $170,000 for organising this telethon. We refused as neither we had that much money, nor we considered it ethical to go for such expensive fundraising. However, four country offices of INGOs accepted the offer and raised on an average $600,000 each. None of them were responding directly to the crisis – they worked through their local partners. Some people call the Covid-19 response a good example of localisation, but I consider it an ugly example, despite a little more funding going to local actors, it also maintains almost 100% transfer of risk to the staff of local actors, without providing them adequate risk cover or additional benefits. 

The humanitarian space in India is significantly controlled by country offices. I raised this neo-colonial practice in my paper, ‘International humanitarian aid and the localisation debate. Since the time it got published in 2018, I started facing hostile situations from powerful blocks. Even attempts have been made to harm our limited funding. And I am not the only one. Many Southern colleagues face hostility and humiliation because we dare to challenge the power structure and try holding international actors to account.

Often, we accuse governments of shrinking the space. However, here is a need to reflect on the denial of space to local actors by the international actors, when they freely express their views and advocate on their rights. Local actors, while struggling to get space at global platforms, continue facing marginalisation even within their own domestic contexts.


Want to shift power? Stop controlling the funding and decision-making

Since the WHS, we have been seeing many multi-million-dollar projects to support and accelerate the localisation process and to shift the power. I often wonder, why do we need a power shift from international actors to locals within our own contexts? What makes them more powerful than us within our countries, which they ought to shift to us? 

As long as the obsession remains with retaining the hegemony by controlling funding, a power equilibrium would remain elusive. The desire of expansion is hard to give up. This has made the operational structure so expensive that significant percentage of scarce humanitarian funding gets absorbed to sustain the structure at the cost of wider coverage of people in need of humanitarian assistance 

Over the past few years, the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance and the number of displaced people continues to grow despite supposedly having a well-oiled mechanism. If this new phase of colonisation is not addressed, the architecture would keep catering more to the system and less to the people it has been established for.

In absence of any comprehensive financial data reporting mechanism, there are only estimates about the percentage of funding being passed on to local actors, who are best placed to work with the affected population. According to Harpinder Collacott, Executive Director of Development Initiatives, “Our analysis shows about 2.1% of international aid goes to local NGOs”. Is this what was intended almost five years after the WHS? Local actors like me, actively engaged in the localisation processes nationally and globally, feel compelled to believe that this global reform process has consumed a significant amount of time of ours, without yielding any results. Local actors like us keep getting invitations to join various global platforms as these platforms need to justify being inclusive of local actors. What have we got in return other than frustration, hostility, humiliation and marginalisation within our own context? We keep getting on these platforms on a pro-bono basis, while the Northern counterparts get handsomely paid for the same. Isn’t it about time to start valuing time investment of local actors?

Has the localisation process become more exploitative for local actors instead of giving much tangible benefits to them? We constantly need to reflect on this question to get a just answer instead of repeating rhetoric. It’s the time for all of us to revisit the vision and mission of our respective organisations to remind us about the purpose of existence. Competition for accessing more funding has only corporatized the aid sector at the cost of millions of people who need humanitarian assistance to come out of their perpetual vulnerability and consequent poverty. International actors should shed the baseless fear of losing their clout if real localisation happens because real localisation would only be a win-win situation. We could focus more on who is best to lead a humanitarian response, and what could others do to complement those efforts in order to make them more effective and comprehensive. We could indeed have a more effective aid system if we all worked together, being led by people working in their own contexts. 


Citations: [1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/

[2] https://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/economic-history/colonialism-meaning-and-features-indian-economic-history/5967

Photo Credit: Photo 1: HAI distributing personal protective apparel (PPA) to sanitation workers (Covid19 programme). Photo 2: Drone based damage and loss assessment during floods in Assam. Photo 3: Dry ration support among daily wagers in a Delhi slum. Photo 4: Personal Protective Apparel (PPA) distribution among sanitation and frontline workers.  Photo 4: Dry ration support to refugees during the lockdown. All by HAI Team. 

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Through this series, CDA aims to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector. 

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 Grace Boone at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the authors

Sarah Cechvala

Sudhanshu S. Singh, an Indian humanitarian and development professional with over 32 years global experience, is founder and CEO of Humanitarian Aid International (HAI). HAI aims to become first Indian organisation, working globally with the Indian identity on poverty alleviation and disaster management. HAI is also currently hosting the international secretariat of Charter4Change

Sudhanshu has worked with several international organisations at the Asia-Pacific level, and has been involved in managing responses to almost all major disasters in the Asia-Pacific region since 2001. Sudhanshu has been closely engaged with Agenda for Humanity, Grand Bargain and Charter for Change. He is member of the steering group of World Humanitarian Action Forum (WHAF). Sudhanshu is also one of the founders and international coordinator of Alliance for Empowering Partnerships (A4EP)