Six and a half years ago, 30 international governments and organizations gathered in Istanbul with an ambitious goal to revolutionize the humanitarian and development industries. Their negotiations yielded the Grand Bargain, an agreement among the largest international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to allocate 25% of their humanitarian funding to small NGOs around the world. Nonprofits like CARE, Mercy Corps, and the Norwegian Refugee Council all joined, committing to bankroll local NGO budgets by reducing their own. And local NGOs, for their part, promised to use their knowledge and networks to improve humanitarian response.
Nowhere was the deal more hotly anticipated than Jordan, where the mass inflow of Syrians fleeing the war in their own country compounded existing problems of workforce participation and water scarcity. Since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis, Jordan’s population has expanded by about 10%, forcing the resource-scarce state to seek support from the international community for humanitarian response. Refugee camps and cash assistance have supported the approximately 1.3 million refugees who arrived in Jordan over the last decade. Jordan has consistently received over $500 million in humanitarian aid since 2013; however, the majority of national and local organizations report that scant funding has reached them.
At its inception, the Grand Bargain promised a new dawn in foreign aid to Jordan. Six and a half years later, however, that promise has proven empty for small nonprofits that continue running on shoestring budgets. According to Maysa al-Hajahjah, an employee at the Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD), a Jordanian nonprofit devoted to providing national development assistance, local NGOs were already cash-strapped in the context of COVID-19. The pandemic forced scores of small nonprofits to shutter their doors during Jordan’s near-total lockdown, while others burned through cash to redirect their budgets towards emergency aid programs. Furthermore, larger INGOs disbanded in-person activities and programming unrelated to the health sector. This disproportionately impacted local organizations that typically receive funding on a project-by-project basis. With their funding and programming halted, local organizations collapsed.
The Grand Bargain promised to alleviate this — then its signatories reneged on the promises, leaving local organizations in even greater peril. JOHUD felt the brunt of this snub acutely. “It was as if someone was invited to a big party,” Hajahjah said. “Then, they got there and discovered they had to pay for everything by themselves. That’s exactly what’s happening.”
Consequently, the Grand Bargain has produced little tangible good for Jordanian aid. Changing geopolitics and international priorities have hampered even modest implementation, forcing structural changes among the bargain’s signatories and causing collateral damage for both INGOs and the small NGOs they claim to sponsor. There is no detailed reporting on the percentage of funding that supports local and national organizations; however, only five national organizations received funding in 2019, according to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Worse, for people living amid humanitarian crises, the aid system remains opaque, unaccountable, and misaligned with their needs. And while INGOs tend to pay lip service to localization — the idea of putting local organizations in charge of their own development and humanitarian response — these same organizations and the people they serve are failing to see the results.
Through local eyes: CBOs and small NGOs
In Jordan, local organizations encompass several legally separate groups, the most prominent of which are community-based organizations (CBOs). Royal NGOs, government NGOs, and civil society organizations also constitute local efforts. In contrast to INGOs, local organizations concentrate their efforts on the regional, municipal, and communal levels. They often provide services directly to their communities, and they frequently rely on INGOs or national governments for financing.
When INGOs enter local communities, they never operate in a vacuum. CBOs can often accomplish basic goals like providing shared public spaces or addressing short-to-medium term needs on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, local development and humanitarian work might originate in a locally owned nonprofit. In other cases, informal social networks might work together to help a family overcome a period of economic hardship or protect a woman fleeing domestic violence. Even when communities are disrupted or displaced by war or violence, local organizations can often marshal resources to rapidly assist individuals, taking advantage of their programmatic flexibility to handle multiple cases simultaneously.
This potential to use local organizations led to the decades-long push in the INGO sector that culminated in the Grand Bargain. Although the sector began talking about localization decades ago, progress has been sluggish. In many cases, local organizations are prevented from taking the reins of development and humanitarian work due to the complex bureaucratic procedures in their countries. In Jordan, for example, INGO attention to the crisis brought a glut of unregulated cash to the national economy, according to Dr. Walid al-Khatib, director of public opinion polls and surveys at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. Concerns over accounting for these funds motivated the government to pass laws encouraging tighter scrutiny of money flows.
Consequently, Dr. al-Khatib said, the Ministries of Planning and Labor determine both the economic sector and the ability to solicit international donations for specific local organizations. This stymies their growth. INGOs, by contrast, have vast resources at their disposal to navigate bureaucratic and legal processes, not to mention developing and implementing projects.
The upshot is a tension at the local level between service provision and expanding impact. Although local organizations are more capable of providing services like distributing food and protecting survivors of violence, they rarely have robust legal, accounting, and marketing departments. In Jordan and abroad, this lack of administrative capacity makes collaborating with wealthy international donors difficult. Language barriers complicate matters further. Development organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are wary of working with local NGOs that struggle to produce polished PowerPoints, audited financial statements, and well-written legal policies on a variety of topics, from human trafficking to environmental sustainability, in English.
Consequently, the localization push largely manifests on the subcontracting level. Oftentimes, larger, Western contractors outsource a small portion of their programming and budget to a local group. As the contractor’s partner on the ground, a local nonprofit can exercise more oversight of the planning and execution of a given project. However, the parameters of local contracts, combined with relatively limited scopes of work and short-term funding agreements, hamper the ability of small NGOs to sustainably increase their footprint.
COVID-19, INGO boom, and local bust
The relationships between INGOs, local organizations, and the Grand Bargain changed drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, INGOs made modest progress toward localization through programs like building shelters and offering vocational trainings. But during COVID-19, many governments around the world panicked, issuing regulations on mobility. The resulting lockdowns forced many local organizations to halt their planned programming and forgo their funding, with especially pernicious impacts for women-led local organizations.
Jordan is a case in point: the state’s defense orders restricted movement for all but essential workers — a category that often excluded local NGO workers. These social distancing regulations had detrimental effects for many local organizations aiming to serve their communities. Hamstrung and consigned to their homes, local NGOs were often forced to watch as their governments allowed INGOs to distribute goods, support the health sector, and secure coveted grant funding from the public and private sector.
Though local organizations contributed to the COVID-19 response within their communities, from the Collateral Repair Project to the Jordan River Foundation, the lack of coordination between CBOs, independent local organizations, and their governments represents a missed opportunity. With intimate knowledge of their own communities, these organizations had the potential to improve the emergency response.
The future of localization
As the pandemic recedes from public consciousness, the humanitarian and development industry is refocusing on localization. USAID Administrator Samantha Power has announced a push towards localization, arguing that local development “supports local institutions in the most effective manner and nurtures sustainability [and] prioritizes the perspectives and preferences of those we hope to serve.” USAID’s initiative does not yet include the Middle East. However, localization can only truly occur when the development industry makes active efforts to honor its pledges in the Grand Bargain.
Most importantly, local organizations are calling for an end to the model of project-by-project funding, which makes it impossible for them to make sustainable business plans or long-term hires. In contrast to this practice, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Jordan is pursuing a unique model of localization with Aydoun, a local nonprofit outside of the country’s second-largest city, Irbid. DRC provides Aydoun with administrative support and financing for several of their hires. Through the partnership, Aydoun is building up its own administrative capacities while expanding its services to include mental health counseling. This model supports local organizations with capacity building where it is needed, while getting out of their way on service delivery.
“When we receive general funding, it allows us to implement projects that we know are suitable for our community,” said Nebal Khasawna, Aydoun’s president. “We need funding for a longer period of time to actually make an impact.”
Governments can also take steps to prepare their countries for future crises by establishing more robust communication channels with local organizations, facilitating collaboration, knowledge sharing, and emergency response. In particular, regional and local governments can be brought into the fold. Local nonprofits can provide valuable input at multiple levels of aid provision.
Last July, the Interagency Standing Committee — the organization responsible for the Grand Bargain — unveiled a plan for Grand Bargain 2.0, which acknowledged that the original Grand Bargain’s potential “has not been realized.” Among its antidotes is an explicit focus on efficiency and effectiveness for affected populations. Further, the Grand Bargain 2.0 included some structural changes in the committee to improve signatory collaboration. Whether the new arrangement indicates fresh political will for localization or merely a repackaging of hollow aspirations is too early to tell. Yet as communities in Jordan and beyond continue grappling with humanitarian crises, local organizations cautiously hope that the renewed effort will deliver more than empty promises.
“The best way for local organizations and international organizations to collaborate is through communication,” said Khasawna from her office on the outskirts of Irbid. “We know the needs of our community better than anyone else.”
Gabriel Davis is a 2022-23 Fulbright researcher in Jordan and a Non-Resident Fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. He focuses on refugees and NGO issues in the Levant.
Zoe H. Robbin is a 2022-23 Fulbright research fellow in Jordan focused on climate change, migration, and human rights. She is a Senior Fellow with Humanity in Action and a member of Foreign Policy for America (FP4A)’s NextGen working group on the Middle East.
Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images
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