With humanitarian crises lasting longer and affecting more people each time, the current humanitarian ecosystem is under increasing strain. A new approach is needed to more effectively tackle these critical issues. Considering diaspora and local organisations as critical humanitarian stakeholders in formulating and delivering this new model can be a key component to avoid repeated system ‘glitches’ at the onset of each humanitarian crisis.
As in any ecosystem, it is only through effective collaboration between all the stakeholders involved that efficient and lasting change can be achieved.
Diaspora humanitarians are already going a long way to support one another in overcoming common challenges they face, but still need greater recognition and support. As part of our series of articles on diaspora humanitarianism, this blog looks at how the wider humanitarian sector could join this collective effort and support diaspora humanitarians towards a more localised and coordinated humanitarian response system.
Recognise diaspora role and impact in humanitarian responses
In February 2023, while diaspora networks and local organisations were working tirelessly to provide aid and relief by any possible means in areas affected by the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths confessed the people of North-west Syria had been failed and “rightly feel abandoned” by an international help that never arrived (Relief Web 2023). Similarly, after the outbreak of conflict in Sudan on 15 April 2023, the deteriorating security situation in the country has prevented access for many international humanitarian partners, leaving local civil society groups like the Emergency Response Rooms and Women’s Response Rooms – and their partners in the diaspora – to provide critical assistance to affected communities.
These delays in, not to say failures of, the established humanitarian system have highlighted the need to seek alternatives and/or recognise those that already exist, which includes the key and complementary role played by local organisations and diaspora groups, who delivered vital aid in Northwest Syria and in Sudan.
However, local NGOS and diaspora organisations are still being neglected in the distribution of international humanitarian resources, particularly funding (DEMAC, 2023). This limited access to resources risks making local and diaspora humanitarian responses less sustainable at a time when they are needed more than ever before,
Need for more equitable distribution of resources
Although local and diaspora humanitarian activities have gradually become more visible and recognized, their access to international funding remains very unequal.
While many local and diaspora organisations have been forced to rely on their own resources for many years, the growing scale of humanitarian crises means that INGOs should redouble effort to ensure that funding opportunities, and other resources are shared more equitably and efficiently with local and diaspora-led organisations. This can also apply to non-financial resources such as data and information-sharing on displaced populations or humanitarian needs, or available equipment, and other elements that could contribute to a more efficient response in a context of limited resources while avoiding the duplication of work and efforts. Established international organisations with in-country offices could consider how to support information exchange and transfer with local and diaspora humanitarians in the field and in settlement countries.
In a context focused on the need to localise humanitarian aid, it is important to remember that diaspora humanitarians have vital experience of “delivering” localisation in terms of building relationships of trust, sharing resources and managing risks with local partners. This is also reflected in the flexibility and adaptability of their operations.
Gaining access to additional resources can help them to expand their humanitarian activities and increase their scale and impact.
Support diaspora initiatives and mechanisms for scaling them up
Although diaspora humanitarians and their local partners may not have the organisational capacity to manage humanitarian funds at scale, there is scope for international humanitarian partners to help them scale up their interventions. This can be achieved through providing additional or specific access to financial and other resources, for example in the format of diaspora granting or sub-granting schemes directly supporting their activities in the areas affected by conflicts or areas of residence.
A recent example is the Diaspora Humanitarian Partnership Programme (DHPP) piloted by the British Red Cross through which diaspora organisations and networks in the UK were granted to support their humanitarian and social activities in the UK or in response to crisis abroad1. Other examples of successful diaspora grant schemes include the FORIM PRA/OSIM diaspora grants scheme (supported by the Agence Française de Développement ) in France, Comic Relief’s Common Ground Initiative which ran from 2014-2020 and was supported by the UK’s then Department for International Development (DfID), and AFFORD’s Africa Business Centre (ABC) small grants programme (2018-2020). Although most of these had a development, rather than humanitarian, focus, some humanitarian initiatives were supported, and they all offer useful learning on diaspora grant schemes and how to broaden and deepen relationships with diaspora groups and their partners.
Other useful resources also include sources of knowledge sharing, such as previously carried out research, reports or databases compiled, technical support and training or public visibility. Other initiatives have aimed to help equip diaspora workers with strategic humanitarian knowledge and good practices2 through tailored training. These initiatives are useful and can be successful when developed and implemented with – and, if possible, by- diaspora humanitarians as equitable partners and contributors.
Amplify diaspora advocacy work
International organisations and institutions generally have easier access to media coverage and a wider audience, from the general public to institutional partners and donors. Making use of their outreach capacity to share key messages can play a role in supporting the advocacy work of diaspora humanitarians – and local organisations – and in preventing long-term crises from disappearing from the public eye.
Providing a formal space or communication channels for diaspora humanitarians to share their work, expertise and experiences as organisations and individuals also helps to increase the visibility of their initiatives and can promote the use of a people-centred approach, which should be at the heart of any humanitarian response narrative.
Alleviate the fatigue and emotional burden linked to long-term engagement
Diaspora humanitarians’ cultural and human proximity to crisis-affected areas can lead to a greater mental burden and emotional fatigue, which must be considered by stakeholders wishing to work with diaspora organisations. This reemphasizes the need to embed a ‘Do no harm’ approach in all stages of a humanitarian response, to prevent and mitigate any negative impact of any initiative on affected populations, including diaspora humanitarians.
This also speaks to the need to adopt a human centred narrative when talking about crises and place the needs and perceptions of crisis-affected people and first responders at the centre. While repeating figures on the number of displaced persons, people affected or the number of victims largely contributes to quantify the scale of a crisis and plays a crucial role in the mobilisation of funds by international donors, it can tend to anonymise and even dehumanise these crises and their consequences, contributing to the “normalization” of situations that are nonetheless critical and non sustainable. . Providing safe spaces for
all diaspora and local partners to discuss, share their experiences and concerns, learn from each other and look for common solutions can be a first way to support this burden. Additionally, extending the access to existing mental health supports to all humanitarian workers, including diaspora humanitarians, should be considered.
An ongoing effort still led by diaspora humanitarians
Although the work of diaspora-led organisations and local partners has now proven to be complementary if not indispensable, there is still a long way to go towards a more efficient and inclusive humanitarian response. Recent crises in Syria and Türkiye, Sudan, and Haiti have shown the limitations of the international humanitarian system, and the need for root and branch reform, which some INGOs, global initiatives and even some UN agencies have started to recognize.
Acknowledging the role of the diaspora and local actors in humanitarian settings is an important first step. Enhancing the impact of diaspora humanitarians and their local partners will require all humanitarian actors to deliver on their commitments on localisation and resource-sharing- which include funding but also visibility, power and leadership – with local civil society groups and their diaspora partners.
Just as the broader humanitarian sector has evolved over decades in response to critical events, diaspora and local humanitarian organisations have also evolved. Drawing on the expertise and experience gained from years of involvement in crises affecting their countries of origin and heritage, diaspora and local organisations have strengthened their ties and begun to organise themselves into networks, platforms and coalitions to better defend their interests, make their voices heard, and carry out more effective advocacy. The burden is now on to the humanitarian ecosystem to translate commitments into action and deliver change and innovation for more effective humanitarian response.