Power & solidarity in humanitarian governance – what aid workers really think

30 September 2021

We conducted a survey of humanitarian workers on issues related to power in humanitarian governance. We were particularly interested in probing the perceptions and attitudes of aid workers regarding the current inequalities in the sector and the possibility of fundamental change. Localization was a useful window to assess relations of power, and especially between “international” and “local” actors.

by Michael Barnett, Alexandra Vandermoss-Peeler & Smruti Patel, George Washington University & Global Mentoring Initiative

This article was originally published on CHS Alliance webiste

The respondents

We had a total of 248 respondents. Sixty percent had been in the sector for a decade or more, and only a marginal percent a year or less. So, almost all respondents had five or more years of experience. Almost sixty percent said that they currently work for an international non-governmental organization; ten percent work for the United Nations; eight percent for the International Committee of the Red Cross or the Federation; and ten percent work for local and national NGOs. A slim majority (55%) work in the global South. Almost all respondents said that they had experience working with different kinds of actors, including national and local governments, the UN, and donors.



There have been lots of surveys of aid workers in the last few years. Many of our findings reproduced theirs: considerable support for localization, disappointment by the progress of localization, and pessimistic about its future, feelings that partnerships are highly unequal between international and local agencies. But some of our findings ran counter to conventional wisdoms and raised interesting questions that deserve much more attention.

Blame the Donors

If localization is not advancing, much of the blame rests on the shoulders of the donor agencies. This is not quite a surprise but worth acknowledging. Past surveys suggest that local agencies have difficulties with INGOs, and that everyone has difficulties with the UN. But when asked to rank who has the most power over local agencies, a majority of respondents (51%) said donors have the most power compared to less than one in five (18%) who said the same of INGOs. UN agencies come in second, and INGOs third. As we say, this is not news, especially to local organizations themselves. But it might be worth spreading the news more among the donors. While we doubt that they are unaware of their impact, both good and bad, it is probably worth reminding them of both the direct and the downstream effects on affected communities. This is about more than money. Perhaps one small but significant measure is to try and interact directly with southern NGOs, rather than using INGOs as middlemen.

One World?

Closer interaction in large gatherings might not bring more solidarity between international and local actors and the belief that they form a single humanitarian community. Nearly all respondents said they had attended large humanitarian gatherings attended by staff from international and local agencies. Did these encounters produce feelings of solidarity? No. Fewer than one-third (32%) said their attendance increased their belief that the humanitarian sector is a single community with a shared purpose. A quarter (25%) of respondents said the events had no change on their perception of a unified community. A plurality (42%) of respondents said such events decreased their belief that sector is a single community with a shared purpose.

Said otherwise, these crossnational gatherings are making people feel less united in shared goals and humanitarian principles and may actually be feeding into a perceived fragmentation and estrangement. Interestingly, those from the West (39%) are more likely than those from the South (30%) to say sector-wide events decreased their belief of a unified community and purpose (39% vs 30%). But it is worth further investigation whether these events simply clarify differences or whether they create them.

More Respect than Disrespect

There is a lingering sentiment among local aid workers that international actors feel and act as if they are superior to them. Perhaps. But roughly two-thirds (68%) of respondents who worked in the global South said that were treated as equals in their personal experience with staff from Western-based agencies. One-third said they were treated as inferior by staff from Western-based agencies. It would be great to know more about why they feel treated as equals or as lessers. We presume exchanges with equal treatment are more likely to produce friendship than estrangement, but such exchanges could, at the same time, clarify different priorities. Additionally, these differing perceptions could be driven by differences in the size of the gathering and scope of the project/event. We are assuming that exchanges based on equality are more likely to produce friendship than estrangement, but such exchanges could, at the same time, clarify different priorities.

This finding is interesting and its implications are profound. It suggests, at base, that it is the quality and not the quantity of interactions that matters. But what is it about that quality? Moreover, it suggests that international and local actors have fundamental differences regarding the purpose and priorities of humanitarian action. International and local actors might have very different ideas about what should be done, and these differences might produce feelings of respect or disrespect.

Partnerships for Mixed Reasons

We know that partnerships often leave both sides feeling disappointed, frustrated, and aggrieved, but our findings reinforce the view that there are few alternatives for humanitarian action. Our findings confirm that international and local agencies seek partnerships for instrumental reasons that are directly and indirectly related to improving humanitarian action. The broad perception is that the number one reason why international agencies seek partnerships is to improve access to local populations. Local agencies also believe that a partnership will often improve access – but the number one reason they seek an international partner is to improve their reputation and status. Both international and local agencies also report that partnership is a win-win outcome in terms of financing. International and local agencies might not enjoy partnering, but they each get something from it. And, it is necessary for improving the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

All of these findings underscore an important point that is often lost in the evaluations: partnerships are difficult and the more dependent the partners are on each other the more possibility there is for both cooperation and conflict. What is a realistic measure of the quality of a partnership? Should it be measured by success of the process or final outcome?


We asked about capacity because many studies and surveys suggest that international agencies and actors are worried that local agencies cannot be trusted because they do not have adequate capacity. Respondents believe that they are judged not according to their credentials or training but rather according to past effectiveness and access to affected communities. This finding runs counter to the view that the growing professionalization of the sector is creating a widening gap between international and local agencies. Yet 78% of all respondents agreed that international actors will always see local agencies as lacking capacity. There is no way to know if INGOs will ever see local actors as anything but inferior.

A part of the problem might be that INGOs adopt measures of capacity that diminish the capacity of local actors and leave INGOs off the hook. For instance, local agencies are arguably superior to international agencies in terms of access to and knowledge of local communities, but these criteria are rarely included in measures of capacity. Also, there are many post-evaluation reports that castigate INGOs for their failings, but rarely are these failings integrated into definitions of capacity. International and local agencies need to work together to construct measures of capacity that can be objectively applied across the sector.

Creating Trust

We asked various questions designed to get at the obstacles to creating more trust. Trust is difficult to build when some see others as inferior and others believe that they are being seen as inferior.   68% of respondents from the global South said that a major obstacle to building trust between international organizations and local organizations is that the former treats the latter as inferior.  But it is not always about beliefs about equality and inequality.  Sometimes lack of trust owes to the existence of different agendas and priorities, as indicated by 58% of Western respondents and 66% of their counterparts in the Global south.  Feelings of being treated as inferior and the perception of different agendas might be moderated or corrected if there were more opportunities to interact formally and informally.

45% of those from the West indicated that there were not enough opportunities to interact to build trust, 32% of those from the South said the same.

Race Matters, but How Much and to Whom?

There seems to be widespread agreement that humanitarianism has a problem with race. Interestingly, a greater percentage from the West than from the global South feel that race is an obstacle to more effective partnerships and localization. More than six in ten (62%) of respondents who work in the West said racism of international agencies was a major obstacle to increasing trust between local and international agencies. In contrast, fewer than four in ten (39%) of those who work in the global South said the same. We have no ready-made explanation for this difference, but can suggest several possibilities: internationals and those from the West are more comfortable talking about racism; recent events have caused them to have a reckoning with race and therefore it is a more dominant part of their conversation and thinking; they are becoming more aware of how race subtly informs their interactions with those from the South; there is a social desirability bias where the respondent wants to appear consistent with prevailing norms. Additionally, it is worth considering how the discourse around racism is not happening in the same way in the Global south, resulting in different interpretations of the question.

We also asked about the impact of racism on various aspects of the sector: 66% of the respondents agreed that racism has a major impact on southern aid worker’s access to high quality jobs; 63% reported that agree racism has a major impact on the treatment of workers in southern agencies; and 56% believe that it has impacted support for localization.

The big picture?

There are lots of possible takeaways, but without more detailed evidence it is probably unwise to draw too many conclusions. The differences between international and local agencies are potentially vast, but not insurmountable. The reasons for these differences owe to the sheer asymmetries of resources, but there are reasons to think that different attitudes and orientations might leave both side feeling a little less aggrieved. And finally, notwithstanding those in the humanitarian sector are probably less of a community than they are collection of actors with potentially different backgrounds, interests, and aspirations. They are dependent on each other to get things done, and little can be accomplished without them working together. Being able to work effectively together will be a lot more enjoyable and effective if international and local agencies developed trust and a genuine spirit of comradery and solidarity, but maybe this is expecting too much until there is a real shift in power.