Trust and funding locally-led initiatives

Fri, Jul 22, 2022

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Trust, or lack of, is often cited as a significant barrier to localising humanitarian aid and channelling funds directly to local leaders. Our CEO Edmund Page takes a deeper look into what is behind this.

Trust and funding locally-led initiatives

Large NGOs are seen as trust-worthy recipients of large sums of international aid funding. This is one of the major reasons why international aid funding going to local actors has reduced from highs of 4% in 2020 to an even-worse 2% in 2021 (1) - the other 98% is going to well-trusted international actors. By my assessment, most NGOs are well-trusted because they have been able to pass thorough due diligence processes with various layers and supposed fail-safes. But every layer is fallible and the more layers you have, the higher the chance that one layer is a weak link. The only way to really trust an NGO is to go directly to the people they claim to work with and hear what they have to say. But institutional donors don’t do this enough. Instead, they trust a flimsy system of verification, that is more based on collective accreditation by the donor’s peers, than on the accreditation by the communities they are trying to help. This is particularly the case with emergency humanitarian funding, where verification is more an exercise of being asked “did you spend the money?”, than “what difference did you make with the money?”.

One of the major reasons donors are reluctant to give funds to RLOs is because there is a “lack of trust” and this is an issue that is brought up openly.

If donors went directly to the communities being served by refugee-led organisations (RLOs) to understand their work they would see amazing things. My hunch is that if both RLOs and NGOs were assessed only by the communities they work with, RLOs would come out as more worthy of trust than NGOs. RLOs are embedded in their communities and as such, they are accountable to their communities. They live similar lives to the people they work with, so they’re more relatable than outsiders arriving in large vehicles with foreign views of what should or should not be changed. RLOs and their leaders are there for the long haul, while outside actors have a reputation for leaving a community high-and-dry after a short-term intervention. 

One of the major reasons donors are reluctant to give funds to RLOs is because there is a “lack of trust” and this is an issue that is brought up openly. But whenever lack of trust is discussed, it is always qualified by saying that there is a lack of trust in both directions - suggesting that RLOs also need to trust donors more for the funds to flow. To me this is clearly a veiling of what is really being said - donors don’t trust RLOs. Would an RLO turn down donor funds due to not trusting the donor enough? It would have to be a pretty extreme case. It is true that RLOs don’t have enough trust in the donor and NGO community, and this should be changed, but that isn’t what is stopping the flow of funds. Perhaps if they dig deeper they might be faced with slightly more confronting reasons why there is a lack of trust from RLOs towards donors. 

Donors should be more open that it is their lack of trust that is a barrier to providing more funding to RLOs. 

Since donors claim to want to give more funding to RLOs and trust is given as a major barrier, they need to explore why that is the case. If RLOs, who are the most accountable to their communities for the work they do, cannot pass levels of verification that their other funding recipients can, the donors need to think about whether those verification measures are the right ones or have any validity at all. 

If donors want to hit the target of 25% of funding channelled to local actors it is upon them to find new ways to overcome and counter this lack of trust and initiate ways to accredit grantees based on verification by their communities. 


In the meantime, RLOs should continue to work on complying with standards set by donors, with support from partners like Cohere. They can also find ways to open up access to their communities and the views of their participants through engaging and persuasive communication channels, such as Reframe - . RLOs can use funds from donors who are already committed to funding local humanitarian actors, such as Open Societies Foundation, Bosch Foundation, Segal Family Foundation and Porticus to invest in the ways they prove impact and bring the voices of their community to a wider audience. 

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