Most humanitarian programmes commission aid consultants at various stages of their operationalization to evaluate the efficiency of relevant programme design and implementation. In principle, such consultancy reports are crucial pieces of documents for knowledge retention – although in reality, they can be much contested by the aid professionals who live the everyday humanitarian politics of life.
Undoubtedly, aid consultants are important for their valuable expertise that enables them to translate knowledge regarding an aid program to a written language that is accessible for a broader scope of audience both within and outside of the humanitarian sector. They possess the unique investigative, analytical and reporting skills allowing aid organizations to retain the operational lessons they have learned in structured, organized reports that can be shared for the considerable future, for audiences both within and outside the humanitarian aid sector. Aid professionals, in most cases, are not trained for these skills.
The paradox, in this case, is that an overwhelming majority of aid consultancy reports were written by expat consultants who, although undoubtedly knowledgeable, nonetheless come from outside the crisis environment. They do not possess one crucial type of information – the detailed, continuous and up-to-date knowledge on the operational challenges and successes of the aid programs since their initial conception. On the other hand, local aid workers – having had years of frontline experience in facilitating their programs – possess this knowledge. In turn, a consultant needs to hold exceptional humility and willingness to learn from local aid workers in order to produce a useful report.
The Expatriate Disconnect
In general, most expat humanitarian professionals are unlikely to remain in one mission for an extensive period of time. Their contracts are often short-term, predominantly a few months to a year, meaning that turnover amongst expat aid workers can often be frequent. It is not uncommon that expatriate professionals arrive in a new country programme without familiarity towards local geographical, social and political dimensions. Similarly, expat consultants stay in the field for a short period of time (from a few weeks to a few months) and collect information through tightly arranged visiting schedules, dashing through different field offices before soon departing to produce the report elsewhere.
Within this limited timeframe, they need to commit most of their presence to extensively collaborate and socialize with local aid workers in order to well-perform their own professional function. However, this often is not the case. Séverine Autesserre has long highlighted the exclusivity of expat conflict interveners that distances themselves from their local counterparts. In Peaceland, for example, she details the existence of an “interveners’ circle” in conflict environments reserved for expatriates and “a handful of local elite – usually the significant others of interveners, and sometimes wealthy businessmen, important employees of international agencies, or leaders of prominent local NGOs.” These “circles” are rarely penetrable by working class locals – including local aid workers. In turn, if an aid consultant’s local network resides predominantly in this “circle” – the analytical product that they produce may not contain the valuable, context-specific insights from local staff members.
This particular logic can also be applied to understand the positions of other expatriate humanitarian professionals working in different local communities in crises. In her most recent book, The Frontlines of Peace, Autesserre further elaborates this issue in the specific context of peacebuilding, noting that often times, “as far as promotions go, most peacebuilding agencies reward the number of missions completed in different countries rather than the amount of time spent in a particular area.” In addition, she also observes that many “interveners discredit foreigners who stay too long in a specific place… as having ‘gone native’ – implying that they are too immersed in the local culture, and too close to host populations, to effectively carry out their mission.” This mindset has long encouraged the unwarranted discrediting of local expertise and increasing preference for top-down, thematic knowledge – preferred for their generalizability and simplicity in crisis environments that are, in contrast, unique and complex.
It is also very likely that most expats would have arrived in “the field” with no local knowledge at least once throughout their professional career. Some expatriate humanitarian professionals disclose this reality through memoirs recounting their field experience: in Emergency Sex, Heidi Postlewait contended that she arrived in her posting as a secretary for the UN Mission in Cambodia while she “didn’t even know where Cambodia was.” Leanne Olson, through A Cruel Paradise, admitted that she “didn’t have a clue about Bosnia” when arriving for her Doctors Without Borders position. In turn, the extent to which expatriate professionals understand local situations can depend on how much they reference the knowledge of local staff in the short term and how well they assimilate to local life to perform their own observations in the long term.
The Neglected Local Staff
Indeed, humanitarian aid and development organizations are aware of the importance of their local staff members. After all, they know the roads, the community customs, the language and the broader domestic political landscapes that organizations need to navigate through. As Elizabeth Harrison suggests, local knowledge (again, not local staff), have seen increasing appearances amongst the operational narratives of most programmes in crises environments. However, this narrative perpetuates the reason for local staff to serve in non-leadership, support-type positions, focusing on the coordination and implementation of program decisions made by expatriate leadership.
Autesserre duly suggests that in today’s peacebuilding landscape, expat professionals still “run the show”: while they largely “interact with political and military leaders, rely on external expertise and resources, and use the same kind of solutions all over the world… they don’t get immersed in complicated local issues or develop in-depth knowledge of the history, politics and cultures of the countries in which they work.” At the same time, Silke Roth notes that many local professionals would have to “train new international team members on a regular basis”, which is concerning when we take into account of Shevchenko and Fox’s observation that local aid workers themselves rarely have access to opportunities of being promoted to leadership positions that expatriate staff often occupy. In fact, Ong and Combinido indicate that even though local professionals are equipped with the mental aptitude in navigating through new and unknown circumstances and living conditions, they still have “limited professional mobility within the global organization.” In many ways, although local professionals are valued for the field-level knowledge that they possess, it does not necessarily translate to them being trusted with making administrative decisions based on their local knowledge to anchor the future trajectories of their organizations in the field.
Image credits : Islamic Relief Worldwide
The Frontlines of Peace is significant for Autesserre’s vivid and hopeful storytelling that reminds readers how peacebuilding has always been a brick-by-brick effort, sustained by people from all walks of lives who share the same aspiration for everyday peace. While a vast amount has been written on planning, structures, and managing things — much less has been written on managing people, the one type of actors at the centre of peacebuilding and humanitarian operationalization. In fact, most of the available relevant literature, in one way or another, possess this particular characteristic, which can potentially be a main reason for their unpopularity amongst local aid workers. By focusing on broad structures and systems, we may have presumed humanitarian aid organizations as unitary actors within a larger scope of structure, discussing aid workers as almost replaceable sources of human expertise. However, in reality, local aid workers are very much unique individuals with their own names, stories and potentials that have long been overlooked and, more importantly, with unparalleled upbringings to foster peace in their home communities that we need to consistently recognize.
While aid providers are often assumed to be in a place of relative privilege compared to aid recipients – this perception is brought into question by the presence of local professionals. To different extents, they are also the victim of the exact crises that they are working to relieve (which also puts them in a uniquely advantageous position of understanding the conflict that they live in). In the complex reality of conflict, as we strive to understand the vulnerability of local communities in face of hardship and devise the best way to reach them, we may have forgotten that the local aid workers – who live the everyday politics of delivering life-saving assistance to communities in crisis – are also vulnerable in their own unique ways.
Stoddard, Harmer and Haver stress that local humanitarian professionals, while taking on a significant bulk of operational and implementational tasks of aid programmes, are marginally less protected and compensated compared to their international counterparts. In addition, Jackson and Zyck find that they also receive less training, livelihood benefits, security provisions and psychosocial support compared to their expatriate colleagues. For example, Sally Mohsen, a local professional who had worked for Save the Children in Egypt during the Arab Spring, recounted how the agency’s local staff members were exposed to significant security threats due to the fact that they were not able to travel with the NGO-owned vehicles and asked to take public transportation instead. The logistics policy at the time was justified on the basis of funding limitations, but Mohsen detailed that when “one of the international staff would travel [the organization] would definitely assign a car.” This reality is further demonstrated by the 2019 edition of the Aid Worker Security Report produced by Humanitarian Outcomes, indicating an overwhelming majority of aid worker deaths in the past decade are local staff.
Towards a More Local, People-Centered Approach to Humanitarian Aid
John F. Mitchell reasonably argues that humanitarianism has been more political than ever before, making aid workers increasingly vulnerable to targeted attacks in conflict environments by local political actors. This means that looking at how programs are designed alone is not enough. In the future, as we continue to learn from new challenges, issues and failures – perhaps it would be beneficial to ask ourselves: have local aid workers been well-supported? Have we, after years of examining the structure of humanitarianism and peacebuilding at large, really recognized the capacity, knowledge and potential of local professionals?
There are several corridors through which aid agencies, as well as Canadian donor institutions, can better engage local aid workers in their future humanitarian endeavors. For international aid agencies, it may be beneficial to:
- Encourage local decision-making. Reduce the frequency of bottom-up reporting and accept that local staff can do more than implementing and supporting aid programs. Embrace ad-hoc and long-term training for local staff members on how to analyse local information for consequent action, engage with communities and peers, and lead efficient teams.
- Prioritize the retention of local staff, particularly those assigned to rural and remote community offices and stations. Local staff members are often recruited based on the availability of funding for specific programs – meaning that when a certain aid program is completed, relevant local staff may face termination. Instead of recruiting local professionals for the needs of upcoming programs, aid agencies should explore how new programs can be designed to employ the skills of existing local staff members.
For Canada, and particularly donor institutions such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), it is important to:
- Hear from local aid workers. Canada can benefit from consulting local aid workers in the process of determining areas of funding allocation. Incorporating the opinions of local aid workers will help Canada with supporting aid initiatives that better assist communities in crises. Humanitarian aid works best when it addresses the most urgent needs of its beneficiaries.
- Invest in local aid workers. Canada should consider not only funding aid programs, but also training and safeguarding the aid professionals who will implement them. Aid programming strategies are robust in the sector – while there are more lessons to be learned on aid planning, it is time to also assist the local aid workers who will be delivering aid in the frontlines of conflict.
In the end, as we all focus on what we have assumed to be generalizable – designs of a program, structures of insecurity, causes of conflict – it can be very easy to forget that these elements are innately people-centric, and their ultimate impact is on how people live their day-to-day lives. It is important that we better understand those who work to deliver aid and keep peace in the frontlines of conflict: who they are, what they perceive, and how they think they can make a difference – to find new pathways for humanitarianism in its politicized reality. Local aid workers, in this case, can be the compass we need.