5 practical ways we can transform and localise international aid
The current system for delivering international aid has spun out of control. It's bureaucratic, inefficient and broken. So I've worked with colleagues to rethink, redesign and transform things.
localisation, aid, tech, transformation, start-up
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5 practical ways we can transform and localise international aid

The current system for delivering international aid has spun out of control. It’s bureaucratic, inefficient and broken. Only 2% of the billions of dollars available is getting to local initiatives. I know this from my own experience working for a grassroots enterprise that delivers psychosocial support for children and other vulnerable people in war zones. So I’ve worked with colleagues to rethink, redesign and transform things.

The desire to see such changes has been consistently outlined as part of international conferences, and with particular reference to the Grand Bargain – an agreement between some of the world’s largest donors and humanitarian organisations that commits to getting more means into the hands of people in need, and improving the effectiveness of humanitarian work.

The problems are intrinsic to the sector. But my colleagues and I have identified what we need to see solved based on our own experiences. Here are 5 practical ways I believe we can transform and localise international aid.

1. Rethink the system

Currently, big donor organisations sub-contract small, local enterprises to carry out work on their behalf, and provide them with funding to do this. Given that less than 2% of humanitarian aid gets to local initiatives, it’s a losing set up. To receive this funding the small enterprises have to jump through many bureaucratic hoops – because the expectation is that people ‘on the ground’ need additional capacity or training or Masters-level English language proficiency to satisfy the needs of an external, Western system. In doing so, the big organisations dilute (and sometimes even paralyse) these small enterprises’ ability to carry out meaningful work at grassroots level. In turn, this reinforces the stronghold that big donor organisations have – creating a cartel system where a few hold all the reins. This system is failing, and a new solution is needed. We need to upend the entire architecture of aid. To do this means giving up current power structures so aid can best do what it was always meant to: help those most in need.

2. Make use of tech

We are lucky to live in an age of huge technological advances, and so it makes sense to look towards tech to remove some of the pain points that local aid workers experience. How we choose to use that tech is what will make a difference to local people. Currently, in spite of massive advances, many people in poorer areas of the world (or other vulnerable groups) cannot access beneficial tech. Myself and a team of colleagues and consultants have developed a real-time data collection app, Frontline Aid, that can be used on a mobile phone. This immediately democratises the process of submitting data to support project work, because it can be done immediately by someone ‘on the ground’, and makes it possible to connect with the people working on the frontline. Tech as a solution can only be useful if we use it to empower people and remain aware of our ethical obligations when it comes to the data that becomes available.

3. Change it up: data collection

Currently, big donor organisations will ask for data that is mired in technical terms like ‘baseline’ and ‘compliance’. This regularly fails to tell the whole story about the human impact of a local project that may, for example, be delivering literacy classes to children in a war zone. These reporting systems are based on expected outcomes that themselves are demand-led, leaving minimal space for local people to participate in the solutions they best see fit. These reports are siloed – they do not identify trends across projects, and each donor can request different reporting formats. Meanwhile all parties become engulfed with paperwork.

But via Frontline Aid we’re broadening out what data can be. Instead of spending days writing a long report, it could be short voice memos recorded regularly during the duration of a project. Instead of time-consuming and complex monitoring and evaluation data, it could be real-time GPS data logged quickly and simply on a mobile phone. We also follow the 8+3 system that was signed up to in light of the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016 – a new way of standardising, simplifying and harmonising humanitarian reporting.

We have become too used to putting the onus on smaller, local organisations to fit external data and reporting needs. By flipping how we think about data we take away the burden of data collection from all parties – donors, project managers and creators of data. Rethinking how data is sourced and analysed ensures that this can actually become a valuable resource that supports the continuation and improvement of local initiatives.

4. Achieve automation and transparency

A lot of the features of Frontline Aid follow an automated flow – meaning that, once data has been logged, reports can be generated at the push of a button. This data is transparent and available for local organisations and individuals to make use of, as well as supporters of projects who sit outside of the activity. For example, it will be possible for local enterprises to quickly and simply view trends in relation to the number of people attending their projects, or the percentage of women they’ve been able to reach. This function will allow everyone involved to collectively save days, weeks and months in time. It also provides transparency for everyone – as both creators and users of data will have ownership. This is very different from the current system, where people ‘on the ground’ provide data to the donor machine and don’t see what happens to it, or where the value from it goes. Through Frontline Aid, data can be shared (where this is possible from a GDPR and compliance point of view) and then leveraged for the benefit of all.

5. Empower and transform

Ultimately, this is about empowering the people working on local initiatives and enterprises, and freeing up their time to enable them to focus their energies on delivering meaningful work on the ground. We’re also working on a participatory method that will enable direct donations to local charitable organisations – a transformative approach to sourcing and allocating funding that will enable small, local enterprises to have their own agency when it comes to spending money effectively and investing in their futures.

We hope that, through a combination of the approaches mentioned above, the international aid system can be transformed for the better.

Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation.

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