Localising support to displaced populations during and after Covid-19

As Covid-19 continues to spread at a worrying pace, refugees around the world run the double risk of being hit by the virus and by the negative impact of the containment measures. Of particular concern is the situation of those who live in camps, often in crowded conditions and with insufficient access to health, water and sanitation – all factors that can significantly increase the risk of contagion and mortality. Refugees might also end up paying a high price for the concentration of attention on Covid-19, away from their plight and other humanitarian issues.

One aspect that has received less attention so far is how humanitarian organisations helping refugees are changing their practices due to the reduced international and national mobility and other coronavirus restrictions. One important trend is that international organisations’ humanitarian responses are becoming increasingly localised, with growing reliance on local NGOs and civil society groups.

Localisation has been at the centre of many recent debates in humanitarian circles, but the constraints imposed by the pandemic are bringing a renewed urgency to the issue. The need to localise humanitarian intervention might sound obvious, especially in times when discussions about taking more seriously local knowledge and action and addressing North-South power imbalances are gaining momentum. But how easy is it to make humanitarian intervention more local, and increase the participation of local stakeholders and refugees themselves? And how are these issues affecting current Covid-19 interventions for refugees?

I will try to provide some answers by engaging with some of the key debates on the topic, and by drawing on my fieldwork on the risks of zoonotic diseases such as brucellosis and bovine tubercolosis in disaster and conflict displaced communities in Jordan and Pakistan.

Localisation and its challenges

One lesson I quickly learnt from my research is that friends, family and neighbours are usually the first responders in humanitarian emergencies. Their proximity, connection and understanding of the local context allow for a rapid, informed and efficient response. In emergencies where people are forced to move to safer areas, the location of familiar social networks and infrastructure is one of the main factors in deciding on a destination.

Residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan have greatly benefited from assistance by members of the host population in the nearby Zaatari village. The latter have provided a range of resources to Syrian refugees over the years, from shelter, electricity, water and food to livelihood support through livestock and feed. This fits well with evidence suggesting that such local responses are more flexible, efficient, sustainable and more responsive. Yet, most Covid-19 related donor funding is still allocated to established international humanitarian organisations, partly due to their expertise in fundraising and economies of scale.

The novel coronavirus however forces these international actors to implement their interventions through local staff, to partner with local entities, or to change the way they used to work altogether.

There have been a variety of Covid-19 mitigation responses in refugee assistance internationally. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies builds on its existing network of local partners for health responses. In South Sudan, its Geneva-based sister organization International Committee of the Red Cross now sends phone credit directly to those with a working mobile phone, rather than having people line up to make in-person phone calls to relatives outside the camp.

The United Nations developed its global Covid-19 Humanitarian Response Plan with an eye to supporting these local partnerships with national organisations and responses, grounded in a broader agenda aimed at localisation and at shifting decision-making power from the global north to the global south.

Several Covid-19 policy briefs and guidance notes have since been developed by the sector. These tend to focus on how existing organisations may improve localisation, but often stop short of acknowledging existing local community-led responses and how to meaningfully engage local realities.

One challenge in such broad-based guidelines is that the label “local” can refer to a wide variety of organisational types and phenomena, and uncritical definitions often miss the multiplicity and diversity of many communities. There is also the issue that even national organisations may have difficulty accessing remote areas where displaced communities reside, and face challenges with differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Critics argue that localisation can become a reform agenda driven from the top which ends up keeping the formal humanitarian system at the centre of the process, with international rather than national or local actors in the driving seat.

The need for context-specific knowledge and actions

While most refugees I met during my fieldwork lost all their possessions during the war or subsequent displacement, pre-existing social and business networks greatly determine people’s resilience to displacement. One Syrian family in Jordan I spoke with, used to export goods from Syria through Jordan to Saudi Arabia and now set up a new livestock export venture in Jordan, borrowing money from their Saudi business partner. Such a local support system may be capable of rebuilding refugees’ lives faster and more sustainably.

Yet, this kind of context-specific knowledge about what works is rarely incorporated in the actions of international humanitarian actors, highlighting the need for increased support to local responders: individuals and networks within the host population and the displaced themselves.

Gaps and priorities are best identified by people on the ground. An example are the community-based initiatives set up to deal with disaster risk reduction efforts against floods and cyclones in Bangladesh, distributing food, cash, personal protection equipment, hand sanitiser, while supporting hygiene and Covid-19 awareness campaigns.

Unfortunately, there is still little acknowledgement of, and support to community-based interventions. This is due in part to a lack of understanding of local hierarchies and dynamics within and between groups, and what exactly constitutes the “community”, for instance the issue of inclusion or exclusion from such definitions of host and displaced populations.

Empowering local structures

In 2019, the Global Refugee Forum was held under the auspices of the UNHCR, the main UN agency for refugees. Participants pledged to promote refugee self-reliance and increase local response capacity. While this is an important step in the right direction, participation needs to be ensured not only during implementation, but has to extend into the early stages of programme development and of identification of priorities. Refugees and host populations need to be involved in discussions on needs and preferences for humanitarian assistance.

One way this can be done is through developing more flexible funding mechanisms and including non-traditional funding sources such as the local private sector, community structures and leaders, while strengthening existing smaller networks and people’s individual capacity to respond to future disasters and displacement. In Uganda, for instance, refugee and host youth-led initiatives are sponsored by the government and the UNHCR to develop community-based solutions to livelihood and education challenges. In Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, refugees run their own training centre using external donations.

In Zaatari, relief initiatives set up by Jordanians to support refugees in the early stages of the Syrian war now lack funding due to a change in international donor priorities. Reduced donor funding has also affected formal assistance, such as sanitation facilities and fuel for the informal tent settlements I visited. The gaps are often filled by neighbours and relatives. These community and individual initiatives can be revived and utilised and, with more support, become more inclusive and sustainable. Capacity on the ground can be increased through local staff, and remote digital forms of training, even during Covid-19.

Empowering existing local structures is more likely to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of future responses, especially in displaced populations where physical access is often limited. Now that international organisations are increasingly dependent on local partners for implementation due to Covid-19, it is becoming clear that community-led initiatives should receive more attention and support. These changes need to be systemic, so that they last beyond the pandemic, ensuring that localisation strategies become and remain truly “local”.

Dorien Braam is a PhD Candidate studying the risks of zoonotic disease transmission in displaced populations at the Disease Dynamics Unit, University of Cambridge, funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust. She is the Director of Praxis Labs, a global research collective focusing on displacement, protection, labour migration and health.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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