By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The chaos of emergency responses to crises such as the Syria war and Nepal earthquake could be drastically eased by shifting more of the world's aid billions to local relief groups, some of the biggest international aid charities said in a survey.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 25 aid agencies, including large revenue-generating charities headquartered in the United States and Britain, also revealed scepticism that local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can meet donors' compliance standards.
Fifty international organizations working in each country - Nepal and Syria - were contacted in the anonymous survey ahead of the first World Humanitarian Summit later this month, where the proliferation of local NGOs and the role they should play in aid response will be on the agenda.
The gathering of governments, aid agencies and private companies in Istanbul on May 23-24 comes as officials warn of ever-increasing humanitarian needs due to conflicts, natural disasters and climate change.
To help ease pressure on an overburdened aid system, up to 90 percent of international charities operating in Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake surveyed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said bilateral funding from governments and U.N. agencies should go directly to national-level organizations.
"(Foreign) relief agencies coming into Nepal after the earthquake had no understanding of the context," said one international aid group in the survey.
"While partnering with local NGOs seems to have delayed the response, it may well have made it more effective in other ways and built capacity for the future," the NGO said.
Just over half of aid agencies with programs in Syria said bilateral funding should go directly to national organizations.
The charities in both countries, which worked with partners in almost all cases, were split on how much cash should be channeled to local NGOs from multilateral pots, such as the U.N. response plans and appeals.
Twenty-three international charities, including Oxfam and CARE, have agreed to adopt an initiative called Charter for Change, which commits them to passing on 20 percent of their humanitarian funding to national organizations.
National and local groups' share of the total funding pie halved to 0.2 percent in 2014 from 2012, and their share of the money received by all NGOs also fell to 1.2 percent, according to UK-based research group Development Initiatives.
But this figure can vary across country contexts and funding streams. In Syria last year, 10 percent of that country's U.N. emergency response fund went to national groups, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Of the organizations responding to the survey, 60 percent of those working in Syria and around 80 percent of those active in Nepal said more than one fifth of global direct funding should go to local NGOs.
It was unclear whether the results reflect the views of the entire humanitarian sector as some of the largest agencies with annual budgets of over $2 billion, including Save the Children and World Vision International (WVI), did not complete the survey.
WVI spokesman Steve Panton said putting local people and organizations in charge of their own aid responses was non-negotiable. "The challenge is how to get there," he said.
More than half of the organizations polled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that are working in Nepal said they either strongly agreed or tended to agree that collaborating with local NGOs enabled them to reach more people affected by the disaster.
Two big tremors last April and May killed 9,000 people, injured more than 22,000, and damaged or destroyed more than 900,000 houses, forcing many to brave freezing temperatures in shelters made of tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets.
Bibek Pandit, a 21-year-old engineering student who volunteers with Youth Action Nepal (YoAC), a local NGO, was in his bedroom at home near Kathmandu when the quake hit.
He and a friend rushed to a neighbor's house where a six-year-old girl and another child were buried by rubble.
"No one else could have reached the family in time as where they lived was quite remote," Pandit said.
The Nepali NGO used Facebook to mobilize 1,700 volunteers to work in half of all 14 affected districts in the days after the quake, providing food, shelter and other forms of assistance to people in need, said Bhawana Bhatta, its general secretary.
Bhatta, who set up the NGO in the quake-prone region in 2003, said local knowledge was vital to reach remote areas, some only accessible by foot.
"We knew which village to go to and what relief materials to supply, so we were prompt in delivery," Bhatta said.
After the disaster, YoAC joined forces with German international NGO Misereor. This was a fruitful relationship, Bhatta said, but other international NGOs became frustrated by the length of time it took to vet potential collaborators.
"On many occasions a small organization does not possess the documents required to allow them to be screened," said one UK-based charity in the survey.
"There was a high level of bureaucracy which hampered the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the most vulnerable people affected by the earthquake," said another NGO.
While opinions differ on how much to include local groups and beneficiaries, those in favor believe "equitable relationships" between foreign and national agencies are key.
"It is finding those organizations that are interested and willing and have a long-term vision about how they want to build their capacities," said Philip Tamminga, a freelance consultant on implementing global humanitarian standards.
But there was a need for some international agencies to bridge a "trust divide", he added.
"There are lots of ... still quite paternalistic attitudes in the way the international aid sector relates to local communities, local organizations and authorities," he said.
In the run-up to the summit, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has made clear that governments must reform the way they handle humanitarian crises, which are taking an unprecedented toll on civilians.
OCHA has estimated nearly 88 million people are in need of humanitarian aid in 2016, which will cost around $20 billion.
"We need to be much clearer as to how do we empower local people, working more collectively, in collaboration with local NGOs and others," said OCHA chief Stephen O'Brien.
But, at the same time, the aid system needs watertight methods of ensuring accountability and transparency, he said.
"Wherever the money is raised, people want to know it reaches its intended target and really met the needs of the most vulnerable," O'Brien told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Tom Esslemont; editing by Megan Rowling and Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)