Policy Research | The Missing Link: The Role of Local Institutions in Refugee Response

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Background and Framing

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An unprecedented 68.5 million people are currently displaced globally, who spend on average 17 years in exile. The humanitarian system cannot keep pace, as refugees increasingly living outside of camps, among host countries and communities, of which 85% are middle to low income countries. Under this context the global community has convened a series of international fora attempting to transform the humanitarian system to better meet unprecedented needs, while funding and political support are shrinking. The Grand Bargain, the Global Compacts on Refugees, and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework all point to a desire to elevate the role of local institutions in a shared response. US-specific reform efforts have made similar refrains towards increasing the role of local actors in providing assistance.

Core to Catholic Relief Services’ guiding principles is that of subsidiarity---that local organizations and communities who are closest to the challenges of poverty are also the architects of their own development. Strengthening the capacity of local partner organizations is important for advancing human development, and through its PEER (Preparing to Excel in Emergency Response) project CRS is working to build capacities in program and management quality.


  1. Local Actors Matter
    The comparative advantage of local institutions, particularly faith institutions are many, and the international humanitarian community has a lot to learn from these institutions- unbound by the same donor requirements, pre-set sector-based responses—able to focus on those in need, including non-physical needs. They benefit from their extended presence, attuned to community needs, and can provide more holistic assistance, from a lens of human dignity.
  2. Capacity strengthening is worth the investment
    Capacity strengthening is neither a short-term nor uniform procedure and efficacy is best found through tailored, long-term investment in each organization. Capacity strengthening takes time, and must go beyond training. By improving local institutions’ program and management quality, the humanitarian system benefits from improved delivery of assistance by the whole system. 
  3. Local actors improve refugee response and experience 
    Local actors have an important role in helping build social acceptance. Local Faith Institutions (LFIs) carry great leverage and provide a key, grassroots role in influencing the level of social acceptance between Syrians and Lebanese. LFIs stand as frontline workers providing direct services to people in need, no matter religious affiliation, across their communities. They play a direct role in influencing how refugees are welcome and accepted in the community, utilizing their shared identities to respond to their beneficiaries, and providing services based on need alone. They are also actively engaged with governments to improve their ability to respond- utilizing a network of local and Syrian volunteers, as well as advocating for supporting all vulnerable people. 


Honour the Principles of Partnership (2007) and go deeper with the Grand Bargain (2016)
Moving towards a more holistic, integrated approach will require additional culture and mindset changes on the part of donors, the UN and implementing agencies alike.  The process of implementing the Grand Bargain needs to be more inclusive- elevating and carrying out the participation revolution, but also including local institutions, by breaking down barriers that keep local institutions from engaging in the grand bargain. 

Design innovative partnership modalities.
Designing new partnership modalities that account for the unique and specific capabilities of local institutions and help reduce existing barriers to their inclusion can help ensure greater involvement of such actors. They should be built with a long-term time frame in mind, which will not only help build capacity over time, but allow for building trust and understanding for greater efficiencies. Donors can help facilitate piloting such approaches, including public-private partnerships, to help drive innovation and help produce further evidence and learning. 

Invest in capacity strengthening before the emergency onset stage, and through development channels. 
Comprehensive refugee responses should include capacity development as part and parcel of a long-term response, through long-term, multi-year funding. Prioritizing strong local institutions at the start and throughout a comprehensive refugee response increases the likelihood for refugees to carry out a normal way of life within their host community.  

Develop clear capacity strengthening strategies which includes an increase in support for multi-year investments in the institutional capacities of local and national responders. 
The metric for localization should not solely be direct funding to local institutions, but include necessary steps to achieving this goal, including increased funding for multi-year capacity strengthening initiatives that address both program and management quality. Creating pathways for achieving localization will reduce the binary nature of our understanding of localization and demonstrate over time the value of processes including mentorship and accompaniment, rather than solely one-off trainings.