Going Local, Going Safely


This post originated on the Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog of the ICRC and is shared with permission.


Principles, perceptions and risk transfer


In highly divided and fraught conflict settings, such as Syria, it can be a challenge for international humanitarian actors to engage in impartial and neutral humanitarian response activities. For local actors this can be twice as difficult. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) may be linked with particular parties to the conflict (whether intentionally or unintentionally) through local staff, leadership or community ties. These links can have serious implications for their security and impact the perception of any international NGO that may be in partnership with them. These perceptions can furthermore result in security challenges for the international partner.


The opposite holds true as well. If an international NGO is perceived to have a particular political or religious agenda, the local community and other actors may assume that any local NGO that partners with this organisation must share the same agenda. In contexts such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria, where there is a history of anti-western violence, ignoring the impact that a partnership between a western international NGO and a local organisation can have on local staff’s acceptance in particular communities can be dangerous.


What do these security challenges mean for the localisation agenda?


Security is all about trust. Sensitive information is shared with organisations that are trusted by local communities, especially if the information shared places the informants at risk of retribution from other actors. The LWF has been in South Sudan for the last 20 years and has invested in building strong relationships with local communities, religious leaders and local volunteers. It is through the support of these local groups and the trust-based relationship established between them and the LWF, that the organisation has been able to remain in the country.


The importance of local actors in humanitarian response cannot be underestimated. It is crucial that the humanitarian community continues efforts to implement the localisation agenda and empower local actors to take greater leadership roles in humanitarian response. Key to supporting this realistically is to neither overestimate nor underestimate local security knowledge and capacity. There are both strengths and weaknesses in local actor knowledge and capacity. Humanitarian partners should be open to discussing these strengths and weaknesses and integrating them into their security risk management systems and trainings.


Local knowledge


An anecdote shared by the Colombian Red Cross during the event evidenced how local actors can play a very important role in warning organisations of potential threats.Organisations should make sure this local knowledge is included in their security risk management practices and capacity building efforts. However, it is also important to analyse the information collected to distinguish between opinions and facts.


A guest participant at the event shared an example from the Central African Republic where a local driver recommended driving at night to avoid being attacked, which was contrary to existing local security risk management procedures. Individual accounts, such as this one, can fail to consider how individual personal profiles (e.g., ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.) may exhibit different risk levels in particular situations, and do not take into consideration other factors, such as the higher rate of traffic accidents at night.


Solely relying on individual thinking to inform security decisions without analysing different sources of information can be dangerous. International NGOs need to provide their local partners with the resources and tools to appropriately obtain and analyse security information.


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