A New Era for Humanitarian Aid: Decentralisation, Local Empowerment, and a Holistic Approach 

A New Era for Humanitarian Aid: Decentralisation, Local Empowerment, and a Holistic Approach 

5th June 2024

The humanitarian sector is at a crossroads. The effectiveness and sustainability of traditional models, often led by Western powers, are increasingly being questioned. For example, this year’s AidEx conference on 12 and 13 June in Nairobi focuses on “the challenges posed by a lack of funding, seeking innovative ways to reinvigorate our response to overlapping crises and foster resilience for managing future challenges”.  As part of these discussions across the sector, a growing chorus of voices is advocating for a paradigm shift towards decentralisation, local leadership, and a more holistic approach that integrates humanitarian, climate, and development efforts.

Ahead of AidEx Nairobi, Bashàïr Ahmed, Shabaka’s CEO, offers her reflections on how greater decentralisation and empowerment of local civil society and mutual aid groups can help address some of the systemic challenges facing the humanitarian sector. 

Decentralising humanitarian aid involves shifting decision-making power and resources from centralised Western entities to local organisations and communities most affected by crises. This approach recognizes that local actors possess invaluable knowledge, networks, and cultural understanding that are essential for effective and culturally sensitive aid delivery. 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has long championed the localisation agenda, emphasizing the importance of strengthening local capacity and leadership. Similarly, the NEAR Network, a global network of NGOs working in humanitarian response, has been advocating for a more equitable and decentralized approach to aid. 

Engaging diaspora communities is another crucial aspect of decentralisation. Diasporas often have strong ties to their countries of origin and can play a vital role in resource mobilisation, advocacy, and cultural mediation. The Haitian diaspora’s support in the aftermath of natural disasters in Haiti is a powerful example of the potential of diaspora engagement. 

One of the most promising tools for empowering affected populations is cash assistance. Cash transfers provide recipients with the flexibility to address their most pressing needs, stimulate local economies, and reduce the risk of dependency on aid. However, barriers to scaling cash assistance programmes persist, including regulatory restrictions and concerns about accountability. 

Pledge for Change, a global initiative aimed at transforming the humanitarian system by prioritising equitable partnerships, authentic storytelling, and influencing wider change, has been instrumental in advocating for the removal of these barriers and promoting a shift towards locally-led solutions. Real-world examples from India and Haiti, where cash assistance programmes have been successfully implemented with the involvement of diaspora communities and mutual aid groups, demonstrate the potential of this approach to empower recipients, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. 

The humanitarian sector can no longer operate in isolation. The interconnected challenges of climate change, conflict, and poverty demand a holistic approach that integrates humanitarian, climate, and development efforts. This is recognised by numerous actors.  

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) underscores the urgency to address environmental factors and climate change as key drivers of human mobility. Their strategic vision advocates for policies that reflect the significance of environmental factors across all areas of migration management. Similarly, the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) emphasises the critical role of diaspora actors in responding to climate crises. And the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for aligning humanitarian efforts with broader development objectives. The interlinking of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the Agenda for Humanity illustrates the potential for SDG targets to contribute to both development and humanitarian goals, fostering a more resilient and sustainable future. 

As we navigate these challenges, it is imperative that we leverage the insights and commitments of these organisations to forge a path toward a more integrated, effective, and sustainable approach to humanitarian action. 

The path towards a more equitable, effective, and sustainable humanitarian system is clear. It involves empowering local leadership, engaging diaspora communities, scaling cash assistance programmes, and fostering a holistic approach that integrates humanitarian, climate, and development efforts. 

This transformative vision is not merely aspirational; it is achievable. By learning from successful case studies, embracing innovation, and challenging outdated paradigms, we can create a humanitarian system that truly serves the needs of those affected by crises. 


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