By Megan Rowling
ISTANBUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - African, Asian and Middle Eastern aid groups have set up a network to help them gain more funding for their work with communities hit by war and natural disasters, and a greater say in how aid is delivered.
Large international aid agencies often take priority over smaller local groups when it comes to resources and deciding how to help people hit by a crisis, groups based in developing countries said.
The Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR), launched in Istanbul ahead of the May 23-24 World Humanitarian Summit, brings together some 55 organizations with the aim of sharing their expertise and gaining greater recognition for their work.
"We hope NEAR will provide the much-needed platform to strengthen the collective voice of those working directly with local communities," said Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, an African NGO that works in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan.
"What we have is proximity and intimate understanding of our communities, along with local credibility and trust," she added.
Jemilah Mahmood, under secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that local aid groups tend to be sidelined.
"Because proximity ... is so critical, it is the local and national actors that are getting access (to affected people), but they are left out," she said.
Naomi Tulay-Solanke, executive director of Community Health Initiative, which supports vulnerable people in Liberia's slums, said that during the Ebola epidemic her organization had come up with a wash stand with eight taps that allowed school children to wash their hands more quickly before entering class - cutting down on long waits.
This idea was borrowed by international aid groups, with little acknowledgement until global charity ActionAid helped Community Health Initiative install 112 handwashing stands in around half of Liberia's 15 counties, she said.
"Because we were local, no one partnered with us," said Tulay-Solanke. "We should be recognized at international level - it motivates us to work more."
A group of major government donors and aid organizations are due to pledge at the summit in Istanbul to channel a quarter of their humanitarian funding through national and local agencies by 2020.
New figures by British research group Development Initiatives show that they received only 2.5 percent of direct humanitarian funding in 2015, up from 0.9 percent in 2014.
While the new target has been welcomed by potential recipients such as Adeso, they say they want to be involved in putting the goal into practice and making sure it is met.
"We need to make sure that this percentage will be effectively implemented," said Virginie Lefèvre of Lebanese aid agency Amel Association, which works with Syrian refugees and other groups in need. "It is also about fair partnerships."
Local and national groups, which often receive large chunks of their funding via U.N. or international agencies, have long complained they do not get enough money to cover their overheads, expand their work or operate safely in risky places.
"We want NEAR to be an inclusive network ... that promotes equitable, dignified and accountable partnership in the humanitarian and development world," said Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director of COAST Bangladesh, and a member of the NEAR leadership council.
The new network will focus on advocacy, financing and research, among other things. It has plans for concrete measures such as setting up national pooled funds managed by local groups that would distribute money for aid projects to approved members, Ali said.
Another key aim of many agencies at the Istanbul summit, including the Red Cross, is to invest in helping local groups lower the risks of hazards like floods, earthquakes and droughts turning into disasters.
"The response to challenges is very dependent on how resilient the community is, and how well prepared the government and local organizations are," said NEAR's Executive Director Smruti Patel.
Scholastica Nasinyama of InterAid Uganda said one good reason to support local groups is that they carry on working in communities even after they have recovered from a disaster.
Azwar Hasan returned to his native Banda Aceh after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 killed 10 members of his family, and set up Forum Bangun Aceh, which works on education and reducing disaster risk. But he warned that if the same thing happened again, many local communities would still not be ready.
"I hope this summit can bring good things for communities and save more lives when disasters come," he told the NEAR launch.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling, Editing by Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)