Rethinking capacity and complementarity for a more local humanitarian action

Humanitarian action has been a mainly international endeavour, where power continues to lie with donors, UN agencies and large international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). This led to a call at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) for humanitarian action to be as ‘local as possible, as international as necessary’ (UN, 2016), inspiring numerous debates and initiatives, including the Grand Bargain. To better inform local humanitarian action, HPG launched a two-year research project in 2017 on capacity and complementarity, of which this is the final report.

A number of key findings came out of this work, including:

  • A lack of recognition of existing local capacity is the main obstacle to more complementarity between local and international actors. This stems from how capacity is understood and assessed – actors tend to define capacity in the way that best matches their own interests and perceptions of their own strengths.
  • Complementarity between local and international actors does not readily exist in practice. Instead we found two situations: one where humanitarian action aimed to be as local as possible and only local; a second where humanitarian action was as international as possible and as local as necessary.
  • Levels of complementarity are affected by a number of factors including coordination practices, donor attitudes to fiduciary and reputational risk, government attitudes and policy, lines of accountability, access to affected people and the nature of the crisis.
  • Low levels of trust, unequal power dynamics and perceptions of legitimacy all play a significant role in how complementarity plays out in a crisis context.
  • Where long-term and strategic partnerships exist and there are well-established development organisations, complementarity in humanitarian action tends to be higher.
  • While strong localisation activism can lead to tension rather than collaboration, it demonstrates how networks of local actors can alter power dynamics through using the language of the Grand Bargain commitment on localisation.

For complementarity between local and international actors to be supported, several practices need rethinking. The 13 recommendations below have implications for the policies and practices of donors, global cluster coordinators, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN agencies, INGOs, affected governments and local actors in all their diversity.

  • The capacity needed to respond to a specific humanitarian situation should be defined through local consultation with a wider and more diverse group of stakeholders, including affected people.
  • Capacity should be defined in relation to each specific context and each specific crisis.
  • Alongside risk assessment and capacity gap assessment, introduce a context-wide mapping of existing capacities aligned with the above consultation on defining capacity.
  • International actors should rename capacity assessments as risk assessments and capacity gap assessments and harmonise these to reduce the burden on local organisations. With the agreement of local actors, international actors should agree to accept each other’s assessments of risk and capacity gaps.
  • Where international actors require a risk assessment or capacity gap assessment (e.g. to provide funding and work in partnership), these assessments should come hand in hand with the investment and commitment to addressing the gaps identified. These assessments should also be reciprocal to identify capacity gaps of both international and local actors.
  • Investment in capacity strengthening should build on existing evidence of good practices. Clusters could be more strategic in supporting coordinated capacity strengthening in specific sectors andthere could be a collective approach to capacity strengthening similar to those currently implemented for communications and community engagement.
  • Continue to document and provide evidence of innovative practices in partnering that leads to better complementarity.
  • Localise coordination through adapting it to context and existing structures.
  • Use coordination structures to shift power and support more strategic and equal partnerships.
  • Donors should convene a more honest discussion on risk sharing by engaging at the political level. In discussing risk sharing, they should also consider how to use national and local systems of accountability (social accountability through communities, peer-to-peer accountability) to mitigate fiduciary risks.
  • Donors should redefine success by rewarding organisations that create strong and equal partnerships in crisis-affected contexts and allocate funding to support these partnerships in ways that leads to more complementarity.
  • Local actors should be supported to better recognise and constructively challenge perceived and hidden power dynamics in the humanitarian system, including at the partnership level.
  • Support local actors to demonstrate their capacity through capacity assessments, by helping them to conduct self-assessments and approach international actors with requests for partnership, as well as supporting capacity strengthening when needed.


Resource Info

Resource Type



Published by

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Humanitarian Policy Group

Authored by

Veronique Barbelet


Anti-racism and Decoloniality
Professional Development