Four years ago, the United Kingdom was part of a concerted effort at the World Humanitarian Summit to promote the importance of focusing on the ‘local’.
As you may recall, the ‘Grand Bargain’ that emerged from the Summit was principally about that – the fundamental importance of listening, supporting and sustaining those who were most directly affected by a disaster or emergency and, in so doing, to put local actors front and centre in planning and delivering humanitarian assistance.

Yet, perhaps ironically, ‘local’ seems to have been forgotten or ignored by at least one of the Grand Bargain’s major supporters, the British government, when it came to dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. In the words of the mayor of the city of Manchester, ‘Central government has ignored the views and needs of the people of Manchester and assumed that Central authorities know best.’

This brief spat between the Prime Minister and the Mayor presents an interesting paradox. With all the stress that had been put on the idea of ‘local’ when it came to the vulnerable elsewhere, it floundered when the concept was tested in parts of Britain’s so-called deprived northern regions. While not wishing to exaggerate the practical consequences of that clash, it nevertheless is worth noting its symbolic significance, namely, that when it comes to anticipating potential humanitarian threats, decision-makers and planners all too often are trapped in a mode of thinking that limits the sort of flexibility and adaptiveness so essential for dealing with ever more complex humanitarian crises – whether the issue be about other countries or their own.

For all who have been following Humanitarian Futures, this theme is by no means new; and, yet, given the all too evident increases in the types, dimensions and dynamics of crisis drivers, one would have thought that some of the factors that hitherto have constrained creativity and adaptability would have been replaced by more adaptive, anticipatory, innovative and collaborative ways of working.

To the contrary, according to a recent study, entitled, Systemic problems of capacity development for disaster risk reduction in a complex, uncertain, dynamic, and ambiguous world.  It would seem from that study that the constraints and resistance to change remain all too evident. According to the study’s authors, Magnus Hagelsteen and Per Becker, creating systems sensitive to potential threats are undermined by (1) clashing principles; (2) quixotic control; (3) mindset lag; (4) lack of motivation for change; and (5) power imbalances.

Capacity Development

The authors draw their evidence for their conclusions from interviews with 20 high level decision-makers from the international community. These conclusions resulted in a set of lessons – each of which go to the core of sensitive systems – in developed and developing countries – and each suggest ways to deal with the future. They may not be new. You may have heard them before, but the point here is whether or not we have applied them in our own efforts to be fit for the future?

  • Ownership. Almost two thirds of the participants explicitly stressed the importance and even obviousness of ownership. They saw capacity development as an internal process that cannot be imposed from the outside, but should be locally driven;
  • Partnerships.  The ability to work at interfaces between organizations and outside professional sectors is a difference between success and failure. It is a mindset, but all too often a scarce skill that can, however, be developed. The ability to listen and bring stakeholders together is a critical skill for external partners;
  • Learning.  The importance of learning and feedback loops is essential for avoiding future mistakes. Capacity development is about mutual learning and being open to change. ‘You act, you interact, you learn, then you act again, and you learn again”. It, too, was regarded as essential to have the time, mandate and capacity to focus and to develop those capacities through learning, analysis and practice. It should be built into the design of a programme from day one. All too often initiatives are undertaken as if there had been no precedent, no clear and tested lessons from which one could learn;
  • Accountability. The study suggested that the capacity development agenda is project and result-focused, with linear sets of activities over a predetermined period of time until the end of the project without much follow-up. Capacity development is often managed in project management cycles, which do not correspond well with the more organic processes that are essential;
  • Long-term perspectives. ‘One needs to understand that there is a value in building slowly and really not getting the applause because it may not be visible until your death, so to say’. This is particularly problematic, when the timeframes of key decision makers often only stretch to the next election. This is further exacerbated by staff turnover and the impatience of international actors, who according to one participant, “are so impatient, essentially we expect things to happen in five, ten years that used to take forty years’;
  • Complexity. Capacity development is about simultaneous self-organization at different levels, e.g. the individual and organizational level. However, activities are often treated in isolation and not connected to the whole. A key problem with capacity development is not only that the activities are not linked to each other, but also that they are not supporting each other. There is an assumption that what is done at the national level will automatically trickle down to the local level. That is a flaw, what might work globally or nationally may not work or even hamper implementation locally;
  • Uncertainty. In the face of a rapidly changing world, decision-makers and planners need to get used to feeling more uncomfortable more often, and need to give up the delusion of being experts. ‘We need to realize that capacity development involves a lot of uncertainty and a lot of discomfort’

Now, the final word from the authors:

Actors are not internalizing the radical and rapid changes in recent decades, but are instead maintaining their traditional perspectives, roles and blueprint solutions. This is particularly true since actors are susceptible to an “expert blind spot”, which limits what is seen in terms of local needs and context. Although the results call for a complete change of mindset and roles within the entire aid industry, there is a lack of motivation for any change as long as the wheels keep turning, generating benefits for powerful actors and profits for the bureaucracies in control. This boils down to inherent power imbalances in the system, where donors and external partners have the power, not the internal partners. Relinquishing control means relinquishing power, which is an indispensable but intricate change that has to occur for capacity development to be effective.

From local to global, the next Humanitarian Futures Newsletter will reflect on types of future crisis threats as seen by a wide range of natural and social scientists from across the globe about the globe.