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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 19, special issue: Aid localisation

Localization as self-criticism: three tales from a Colombian aid worker
Gabriel Rojas Andrade

This short article deals with the concept of localization from a self-critical perspective. It is not an academic piece on localization but rather a reflective piece from a personal point of view. Localization is a personal issue. We can write about it in a distant way, saying it is the new trend in the humanitarian world, as stated at the World Humanitarian Summit, or we can start looking at the international aid industry in a more critical way, asking ourselves if the supposedly altruistic way of living that is required by our jobs is taking away resources from those who really need it, in favour of our comfort and quality of life.

 Is this not about you?

Localization is an exercise in self-criticism for humanitarian and development workers. If we take it seriously, localization is directed against an industry and a way of life, is directed against thousands of careers defined by a top down perspective of intervention in crisis contexts. Engagement with local and national authorities and organizations in these contexts is always based on an antagonistic relationship between those who receive aid and outsiders bringing resources and knowledge. These outsiders try to adapt their private lives to exotic contexts. And this costs a lot of money. It is not that workers from the humanitarian and development industries do not enjoy their role as foreign aid providers, with adventurous spirits, willing to leave all their comforts behind for a cause. They do like it, because, actually, they do not abandon everything, all the time: they might get a car for themselves, they might spend part of the month in the best offices in town, and they might get to sleep in really comfortable beds near refugee camps. And there is a sense of sacrifice, which is quite fulfilling and well nurtured by international NGOs and UN agencies, because -when expats devote their lives to a cause based on the principles of humanitarian intervention- they deserve good working conditions in order to accomplish their task. And that costs a lot of money.

I know about this. I have made a living from international cooperation in Colombia for the last eight years. Money from donors has paid my bills, my daughter’s education and even my own studies: it is my way of making a living. But I am Colombian. In the broader sense of capacity building, all the money that has been invested in the projects in which I have participated has helped this local individual to have enough knowledge to take care of himself and be ready to lead local institutional responses to our changing crisis context. And yet, there are still expats in Colombia. Money for peace building is being sent in vast amounts and a whole infrastructure is being set up throughout the country. Not for a humanitarian response, but a development response. And so, the cycle begins again. And all these Colombian professionals who have built careers out of international cooperation will, again, get new jobs for international NGOs or UN agencies. But never -never ever- in a top position. These are reserved for the professionals of the Global North willing to sacrifice everything to live in my country.

If the problem of localization is how to straightforwardly direct resources to national and local institutions and organizations, then it concerns the jobs of thousands of people who will have to give up a certain standard of living in order to allow people born in exotic contexts to make changes themselves. In order to strengthen the capacity of the State to effectively satisfy the rights of those affected by a crisis, whether it is a post-conflict or a natural disaster situation, many professionals from the Global North need to take a step back. Obviously, such a move raises many questions. Are the locals ready? If they had all this mess before we arrived, how are they going to manage the resources that our donors send them? Who will be responsible for the accountability of goals, indicators and expenses? What about corruption? Can they do it without us? Can they do it without audits?

The unease that is evident here shows that behind the question of how to effectively allocate resources in local initiatives (instead of spending a lot of money on processes and aid infrastructure), there is a presumption of incapacity. Indeed, the whole capacity building discourse shows that aid is based on the idea that the affected population cannot do it by themselves.

This short article deals with the concept of localization as self-criticism by describing three experiences I have had as a local aid worker in Colombia, the challenges I have observed in the last eight years regarding getting resources to those really affected by crisis situations, and the struggles of national and grass roots organizations to survive in the humanitarian and development system. Therefore, this is not an academic piece on localization but rather a reflective piece from a personal point of view. Localization is a personal issue. We can write about it in a distant way, saying it is the new trend in the humanitarian world, as stated at the World Humanitarian Summit, or we can start looking at the international aid industry in a more critical way, asking ourselves if the supposedly altruistic way of living that is required by our jobs is taking away resources from those who really need it, in favour of our comfort and quality of life.