Can INGOs Really Separate Power from Money?
Oxfam’s Amy Croome explores a tricky issue for aid organizations like Oxfam.
At the Grand Bargain Meeting this week, signatories will reflect on the role of the intermediary, which has been the focus of a political-level multi stakeholder caucus, building on the Humanitarian Advisory Group’s research.
Is Oxfam ‘just’ a donor?
Localization advocates have been pushing for years for humanitarian funding to flow directly from donors to NGOs closest to the crisis – refugee-led-organisations, women’s rights organisations, national and local actors – rather than to international NGOs and UN Agencies, who often then subcontract those organisations in the Global South to deliver the work. The Grand Bargain – which is holding its annual review meeting this week – aims to direct 25% of all humanitarian finance to funding local actors as directly as possible. The devil is in the detail – funding ‘as directly as possible’ and the reality for most donors is that they won’t fund local actors directly, at least in the short to medium term.
As a result, for almost all local actors, direct humanitarian funding is not accessible from big donors – in fact direct funding to local actors in 2020 was a mere 3% of overall humanitarian funding –, so their access to funding is via us, which inevitably creates a donor-recipient relationship of sorts: we are an intermediary.
So, what kind of intermediary is Oxfam?
It depends on the partner, the local humanitarian system, the history of our country programme and the nature of the crisis. In each context we try and reflect on our value-add, rather than becoming a subcontractor: How can we complement the existing local humanitarian system? What can we offer our partners? The answers vary widely – here are some examples:
Opening doors: When there are funding opportunities that can be accessed by local actors directly and they want to pursue such opportunities, we step back, while supporting them (if needed) by introducing them to the donor and helping them develop their proposals. In Somalia, for example, we reviewed and edited funding applications to donors for some partners. Our value-add here is our potential connection to donors and our fundraising and technical expertise, which we make available. We also try and open the door to advocacy spaces.
As equals within consortia: In many country offices, especially where there is a strong and vibrant civil society and the humanitarian crisis is long-term or recurrent, Oxfam has invested and supported the emergence of consortia of local actors. In these contexts, Oxfam as an intermediary may receive the funding from the institutional donor, but Oxfam does not determine the work alone. Which funding opportunities to go for, how to divide up the work amongst partners, the focus of the response – is decided together. This is true in Kenya for example, where the ASAL Humanitarian Network members divide funding amongst themselves and Oxfam is strengthening the overall governance system of the network. Or in Myanmar, where Oxfam is sometimes overruled by our Durable Peace Programme colleagues.
Quality partnerships as our default: In many humanitarian contexts, partnering is our default way of working. Through investing in our own operating models, funding mechanisms and capacities, our staff and ways of working, we have built relationships with local partners including many women’s rights organisations and refugee-led-organisations that are substantial: our partners are involved or leading in project design and proposal development, they are involved in decision-making throughout implementation and evaluations. But beyond that, we determine together how to divide up work based on our comparative advantages and lay out how Oxfam can support their capacities in ways that work for them. In South Sudan, local actors are now co-designing programmes with Oxfam. Whilst in Colombia for example, 80% our humanitarian funding is shared with partners, many of whom are womens-rights-organisations and we complement their activities with work we have together identified Oxfam should support on e.g. advocacy and on topics such as humanitarian principles as many of the organisations are relatively new to humanitarian work.
Delivering alongside local actors: While Oxfam’s overall humanitarian approach is increasingly defined by partnering and supporting locally led responses, a significant part of our work is still delivered directly by Oxfam teams in crisis settings. This is often in parallel to partnership or consortium work. Oxfam brings an ability to deliver a large response, technical knowledge on WASH, Protection, CASH and Food Security, to embed gender across all work and more. That is our value add, but we try and do so in ways that complement the overall humanitarian system . For example, by leveraging capacity strengthening opportunities and by actively participating in humanitarian coordination structures and creating more space for local actors to participate and lead within these.
How are we doing as an intermediary?
Each country programme has different ways of hearing from partners and local actors more broadly on our performance as an intermediary. Some have regular partnership reviews – some of which are by third parties –, some have partnership health check-ins, some ask partners to speak to donors directly about Oxfam. We get the impression from many countries and contexts, that local actors are able to give us constructive negative feedback as well as positive feedback. For example, in Myanmar, partners tell us our due diligence process are too arduous.
What does un-learning and re-learning got to do with it?
Many of Oxfam’s systems, policies and practices have been changing over the course of years to try and become a better intermediary. We are not alone in doing so, as has been documented here, and we are not there yet.
It takes a lot of unlearning behaviour as an organisation and for our staff to do justice to our local partners as leaders and potential leaders of humanitarian work. It takes a different approach: understanding our value-add to an existing ecosystem of local and national humanitarian actors. Often the incentives nudge us away from this approach and new staff and new partners come with an entrenched hierarchical approach that needs unlearning.
Do we have it all figured out?
No. Of course not. We still have a long way to go, but we are moving. We hope insights into our journey can help other intermediaries on theirs and encourage donors to incentivise us all on this shared objective. We will be publishing more on our reflections and experience as an intermediary soon, for more information contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Croome, Humanitarian Policy Advisor at Oxfam.
This first appeared on From Poverty to Power.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska