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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

Strengthening national capacities from rhetoric to reality, from theory to practice
Dr. Edith Favoreu

More than ever, the localisation of aid is at the centre of debates in the humanitarian sector. But in order to localise aid, national capacities need to be reinforced. Too often, the concept of reinforcing national capacities refers to the actors that are “to be reinforced”. This article looks at this question from the perspective of international aid organisations and the strategic reflection that they will need to engage in.

 By way of introduction

The thoughts expressed in this article are guided by two ideas from different periods:
“What you do for me but without me, you do against me” (Gandhi)
“As local as possible, as international as necessary” (One Humanity: Shared Responsibility - Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit; 2016 (A/70/709))

Capacity strengthening is currently a very fashionable concept. As the topic of numerous conferences, and the central topic of several internal debates, it underlines tensions between the need to localize aid and the necessity to increase international aid, tensions that are related to factors that are themselves controversial. The limits and constraints of external aid are well-known. These include: the fact that it leads to substitution and dependency, the destabilization of national and local contexts, political instrumentalisation and the imperialistic undertones of such an approach. The limits and constraints of localization are also known: the insufficient number of actors, their limited capacities and resources (including financial resources), corruption, doubts about their neutrality and impartiality, uncertainty about the quality of their operations and about their accountability, etc. These often genuine limits are still too often used as an excuse for not giving national actors more power.

How can these tensions, which lead to sterile debate, be overcome? How can the ideas contained in the “Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit” be effectively implemented? It mentions that, “Local and national leadership and responsibility for crisis management should be reinforced wherever possible, backed by stronger regional cooperation and supported by global institutions. The implementation of such a shift should be aided by analysis of the local operational capacities, a review of current roles and cooperation arrangements, and by the creation of more inclusive decision-making arrangements founded on the principles of partnership”. (Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit, 2015).

The aim of this article is to briefly analyse the concept of capacity strengthening in order to shed light on what a genuine capacity development strategy entails for international aid organisations. The extremely general term of “international aid organisations” will be used to refer to both governmental and non-governmental international humanitarian organisations, and organisations that play a role in a humanitarian response (state cooperation bodies, donors, etc.). The aim here is not to make any judgements about what is or is not done, but to outline what could be done, from the perspective of international organisations.