LOCALIZED DEVELOPMENT AND THE FUTURE OF AID

Hilton Humanitarian Prize laureates say the future of aid lies in human- and community-centered approaches.

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Humanitarian action has changed drastically in the past decades. While the drivers of poverty and crises have evolved, the sector has matured, built evidence based on successful interventions, and developed best practices. This has resulted in a shift toward more holistic and long-term approaches to aid delivery, with an increased focus on the root causes of conflict and inequality, as well as inequity.

More attention is also placed on the power dynamics that influence funding priorities and program implementation, with local organizations, communities, and governments taking a more prominent role in decision-making processes. But local actors still struggle to attract the financial resources they need to drive lasting change, leaders of several organizations told Devex.

The next frontier for aid 

When Tostan was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2007, the organization drew international attention to an unconventional yet highly efficient approach to aid delivery.

Established by the Hilton Foundation in 1996, the prize honors the work of nonprofits making a mark in humanitarian action and having distinguished themselves by leading avant-garde solutions to humanitarian relief or development assistance. It is the world’s largest humanitarian award presented to an NGO annually.

Tostan's Elena Bonometti and Penda Mbaye share their views on the need for more participatory, holistic, and locally-centered humanitarian action.

Since its creation in 1991, Tostan — an NGO that works to support rural communities in five West African countries — has placed local communities at the heart of its program design and implementation and tackled local challenges through a holistic lens. However, this was well before the Sustainable Development Goals would normalize multi-pronged approaches to development.

“Tostan’s projects succeed where others have failed,” explained Penda Mbaye, senior program manager at Tostan. “That's because they use a holistic approach based on human rights, but also an approach involving the communities from the start.”

“We need to re-think humanitarian work... Donors and actors of the development sector couldn't keep imposing their own objectives on the communities or make decisions for them.”

– Penda Mbaye, senior program manager, Tostan

In the past few decades, international development and humanitarian aid practitioners have gradually embraced some of the practices that Tostan and other community-focused organizations have pioneered. Funding and program design are moving toward long-term, bottom-up approaches that address the root causes of inequality, using human-centered approaches that focus on the needs of beneficiaries. 

Signatories of the Grand Bargain — an agreement launched in 2016 that seeks to transfer more aid funding into the hands of local groups and recipients — have made relative progress toward their goals.

According to Tostan and other Hilton Humanitarian Prize laureates, the aid sector should keep pushing for localized approaches that empower local communities.

“We need to re-think humanitarian work,” Mbaye said. “Donors and actors of the development sector couldn't keep imposing their own objectives on the communities or make decisions for them.”

“I think the Hilton Humanitarian Prize in its first 25 years has had the flexibility to both reflect the evolution of humanitarian aid, but perhaps more importantly, to also help shape that evolution of aid by really providing a seal of approval for cutting-edge approaches that work."

— Maggie Miller, senior director, Hilton Humanitarian Prize

As some countries graduate to middle-income status, aid programs are moving from service delivery to capacity-building and technical assistance offered to local organizations and governments, according to Dr. Githinji Gitahi, group CEO at Amref Health Africa, which was awarded the Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1999. To be successful, these programs will also have to be co-created with local stakeholders, he said. 

“We'll have to have a shift of power from those who are doing it, those who are funding it, to those who are receiving the funds to be more in control of the solution that [is] funded," Gitahi said.

Amref's Dr. Githinji Gitahi and local champion Assistant Chief Patrick Lembwakita discuss what's needed to further ensure a people-centered approach to aid.

But interviewees told Devex funding to build the capacity of local actors is limited.

Channeling aid funding through integrated partnerships would help build ownership of development initiatives at all levels and empower communities to tackle local challenges on their own terms, Mbaye added.

This is where initiatives like the Hilton Humanitarian Prize come in. While the Prize isn’t a funding program per se, the award, which has grown from $1 million in 1996 to $2.5 million today, has provided its winners with a rare opportunity to access resources they can use for capacity-building. 

“I think the Hilton Humanitarian Prize in its first 25 years has had the flexibility to both reflect the evolution of humanitarian aid, but perhaps more importantly, to also help shape that evolution of aid by really providing a seal of approval for cutting-edge approaches that work,” said Maggie Miller, senior director at the Hilton Humanitarian Prize. 

The list of previous laureates highlights the role played by small organizations in pioneering new and innovative approaches to aid delivery.

Women participating in a Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) workshop in Podor, Senegal. Photo: Tostan

Women participating in a Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) workshop in Podor, Senegal. Photo: Tostan

The Bengali organization International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, or icddr,b, was recognized in 2017 for its evidence-based approach to health care; the Greek nonprofit METAdrasi was recognized in 2018 for its innovative programs supporting refugees and migrants; and Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenyan grassroots movement, was recognized for its community-led programs in informal settlements in 2019. 

According to Tostan CEO Elena Bonometti, the list of prize laureates reflects the evolution of the thinking and delivery of aid over the years. “Humanitarian action, whether it’s relief of development, has become more participatory, more locally centered, more holistic, more data-driven, more gender-sensitive in general, and more conscious of power dynamics,” she said.

“Humanitarian action, whether it’s relief of development, has become more participatory, more locally centered, more holistic, more data-driven, more gender-sensitive in general, and more conscious of power dynamics.”

— Elena Bonometti, CEO, Tostan

The Greek nonprofit METAdrasi was awarded the Hilton Prize in 2018 for its innovative programs supporting refugees and migrants. Photo: METAdrasi

The Greek nonprofit METAdrasi was awarded the Hilton Prize in 2018 for its innovative programs supporting refugees and migrants. Photo: METAdrasi

Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenyan grassroots movement, was recognized for its community-led programs in informal settlements in 2019. Photo: SHOFCO

Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenyan grassroots movement, was recognized for its community-led programs in informal settlements in 2019. Photo: SHOFCO

International health research institution icddr,b, which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won the prize in 2017. Photo: Rabiul Hassan / icddr,b

International health research institution icddr,b, which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won the prize in 2017. Photo: Rabiul Hassan / icddr,b

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The Greek nonprofit METAdrasi was awarded the Hilton Prize in 2018 for its innovative programs supporting refugees and migrants. Photo: METAdrasi

The Greek nonprofit METAdrasi was awarded the Hilton Prize in 2018 for its innovative programs supporting refugees and migrants. Photo: METAdrasi

Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenyan grassroots movement, was recognized for its community-led programs in informal settlements in 2019. Photo: SHOFCO

Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenyan grassroots movement, was recognized for its community-led programs in informal settlements in 2019. Photo: SHOFCO

International health research institution icddr,b, which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won the prize in 2017. Photo: Rabiul Hassan / icddr,b

International health research institution icddr,b, which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won the prize in 2017. Photo: Rabiul Hassan / icddr,b

Rethinking the role of donors and international agencies

The localization of aid answers long-lasting demands from local actors to receive support that can build their own capacity to drive change rather than remain dependent on external assistance.

“We need an organization to be with us so that we can have good knowledge, and then afterward, maybe we can handle the program alone,” explained Betty Idde, co-founder of Togoletta, a women-led group that works to reduce gender-based violence in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Uganda.

IRC's David Miliband and Togoletta's Betty Idde explore how the humanitarian sector has evolved in recent years and where it needs to go from here.

Since 2019, Togoletta has partnered with the International Rescue Committee, which won the Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1997, to receive skills and leadership training. The goal is to help members of the group provide assistance to women and girls, including victims of violence, as well as training more women in counseling and case management. 

“We need an organization to be with us so that we can have good knowledge, and then afterward, maybe we can handle the program alone.”

– Betty Idde, co-founder of Togoletta

Members of Togoletta women’s group usually have their meetings at Betty Idde’s home in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Photo: Esther Mbabazi/IRC

Togoletta, whose members provide support to refugee women and girls, has partnered with IRC since 2019 to receive skills and leadership training. Photo: Esther Mbabazi/IRC

Members of Togoletta women’s group usually have their meetings at Betty Idde’s home in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Photo: Esther Mbabazi/IRC

Togoletta, whose members provide support to refugee women and girls, has partnered with IRC since 2019 to receive skills and leadership training. Photo: Esther Mbabazi/IRC

“We want [local organizations] to build their capacity so that they can help girls and women who are behind,” Idde said.

Amref Health Africa work with Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania on the movement to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Photo: Amref Health Africa

Amref Health Africa work with Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania on the movement to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Photo: Amref Health Africa

Sustainability is on the mind of other local leaders as well. Patrick Lembwakita, assistant chief of Wamba in Samburu county, Kenya, is one of the elders and community members who have received training on human rights and child protection from Amref to end female genital mutilation and child marriages. While changing cultural practices takes time, Lembwakita said it’s crucial for organizations like Amref to ensure that local communities take ownership of the process, so that they can carry on the work on their own.

“Amref will never be here with us forever. And therefore, it is very important that this process is community-led and community sustained,” he said.

The need to fund organizational resilience

Yet organizations often struggle to access funding that could help them bring innovative programs to scale, as most available funding from donor agencies target specific programs rather than organizational growth. The Hilton Humanitarian Prize has helped fill that gap for its laureates.

“We have observed for the smallest and the largest of our organizations, from a budget standpoint, how instrumental that unrestricted funding has been,” Miller said.

When it won the prize, Amref used the then-$1million award to grow its core capacities and fundraising activities, which allowed the organization to expand its work, Gitahi explained.

“That has been completely instrumental in transforming the organization from the $15 million organization it was in 1999 to its journey to be the $130 million organization it is today,” he said.

Tostan was able to increase its program’s reach throughout West Africa but also disseminate its knowledge by training other practitioners. In 2015 the organization founded the Tostan Training Center, where external participants learn about the organization’s community-based approach to development.

Aid organizations cannot innovate without reinforcing their core capacities, Bonometti explained.

“Everyone wants to invest in new ideas and in bringing the program into new geographies. But the reality is that those things can only happen if the organization is strong, stable, and resilient,” she said.

Having that stability is also key to allowing those innovative organizations to survive. When the pandemic hit, Tostan was able to pivot toward prevention activities, which wouldn’t have been possible had it not invested in the capacity of its staff, Bonometti explained.

“Prizes like the one Hilton [Foundation] is awarding are instrumental in building that sustainability,” she added. “If organizations can’t invest in this foundational work, we will never get to a place where [they] can go through shocks like COVID.”

Photos/video: IRC/Tostan/Amref/METADRASI/ICDDR,B/SHOFCO

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