Building forward: Localization and Decolonization of Aid

By CARE Canada’s Simran Singh and Jessie Thomson

We’ve been talking about localization of aid in the humanitarian sector for decades. Localization is the process of recognizing and respecting that decision-making on aid and its implementation should ultimately rest with the affected communities in order to better address needs.

Despite the idea of localization being around for so long, it was only at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit that it really came to the forefront of discussions, culminating in the Grand Bargain Commitments—where donors and aid organizations committed to providing 25 per cent of funding to local organizations by 2020. The subsequent Charter4Change outlined eight commitments organizations could sign on to support localization.

Many of these important conversations and actions came about thanks to the incredible thought leadership and sheer perseverance of Degan Ali and NEAR Network, who challenged the sector to not just talk about shifting power, but also to set meaningful targets linked to this shift.

As an international humanitarian and development organization, CARE is both local and global, made up of incredibly talented national staff and partners that lead our work around the world and a global network that ties us together in advocacy, expertise and impact measurement.

At the same time, the very structures within our organization concentrate voice, resources and power in the ‘Global North’—countries that historically have held the most economic and political power—in the name of outdated ideas about expertise, value and accountability. Despite our commitments to localization and partnership, we, like many of our peers, have been slow to change, stubbornly holding onto power and resources in the Global North and accepting donor requirements that are both archaic and inherently problematic in the name of organizational survival.

However, in a world now completely turned upside down by COVID-19 and its many impacts, the momentum and call for change has never been stronger. We have seen the unequal and unjust impacts of COVID-19, with women, particularly marginalized and racialized women, disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The injustices of COVID-19 have also surfaced inequality and injustice built into our organizations and structures themselves—challenging us more than ever before to confront the deeply entrenched structural inequalities, racism and power imbalances built into our very ways of working as international development and humanitarian actors.

Only when we can honestly say that we are putting our local partners’ needs, perspectives and desires front and centre, above our own organizational survival, will a better world be possible.

Despite commitments to localization and partnership, we rarely named the underlying factors preventing us from truly advancing this agenda, and we almost never acknowledge the reality that this injustice is rooted in colonial legacies, systemic racism and oppression. We are struggling to unpack decolonization and address white supremacy built into our organizational cultures, structures and ways of working. In addition, our operational experience continues to highlight several recurrent challenges that continue to hamper our ability to deliver on the localization agenda and are also deeply tied to these underlying issues and realities.

'Building forward' requires more than a return to pre-COVID-19 economic and societal stability. It requires a whole new set of building blocks.

As CARE Canada, we know that there is no more business as usual and that we need to transform in order to be relevant and impactful now and into the future. So we are now embarking on a journey to champion and model localization and decolonization in our work.

We need to bring our strong gender justice lens to our work with partners, recognizing that the same things that exclude women from decision-making, also lead to the exclusion of women-led and women’s rights organizations from receiving funding to do their work. To this end, we are looking at how we can be better partners to Women’s right organizations through our programs and how we can advocate for funding to go directly to these critical actors on the frontlines of humanitarian and development work around the world.

Funding is critical, but equally, women need to be at the table and be part of and ideally leading decision-processes. We recognize that championing decolonization is going to be complicated and uncomfortable, and we challenge our inherent stories, systems and structures as a Global North organization. We are seeking to address structural injustices, systemic racism and shift power. This means we will advocate for partnership-based approaches, that will give way to others and cede space to our partners.

This won’t be easy and it won’t be without missteps and mistakes, but change is imperative to building the world we all want to live in. Gone are the days when it is acceptable for organizations to parachute in and duplicate or sideline local civil society actors or exclude communities from decisions about their future.

Collaboration is key, and external resources are needed. Only when we can honestly say that we are putting our local partners’ needs, perspectives and desires front and centre, above our own organizational survival, will a better world be possible.

Simran Singh, Vice President of Global Programs, CARE Canada

Simran Singh is CARE Canada's Vice President of Global Programs (Acting)

Jessie Thomson, Vice President, Strategy, CARE Canada

Jessie Thomson is CARE Canada's Vice President, Strategic Planning (Interim)