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Community Contribution

What Women Leaders Say About Locally Led Humanitarian Response

Apr 18, 2024
Megan Kelly

Women leaders from Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nepal shared what they have learned on locally led humanitarian response: 

  • Recognizing WLOs as humanitarian leaders is key to success 
  • Equitable partnership is not only possible, it is essential to deliver results. That requires changing approaches 
  • Projects like WHS can flatten hierarchies between donors, INGOs, and WLOs, advancing the localization agenda 
  • Effective localization projects demonstrate what is possible in the humanitarian sphere when women’s voices are not only included, but powerfully leading humanitarian responses 

At the CSW side event Lessons Learned from the First Year of a Localization Project: Experiences from Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nepal on March 15 in New York, speakers from the Women’s Voice and Leadership in Humanitarian Settings (WHS) project reflected upon the first year of implementing this innovative localization project across four countries and shared important learnings with an audience of donors, INGOs, and women leaders. They expanded upon takeaways that were recently captured in a set of case studies from the first year of the project.     

Following these introductory remarks, a panel conversation took place among the lead partners of the WHS project. The panel was moderated by Nelly Mbangu, from the project’s lead learning partner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sauti Ya Mama Mukongomani. The panelists were: 

The panelists first drew out specific lessons learned from the WHS project in each country. Mainali spoke to how the project has allowed women leaders in Nepal to claim their identity as frontline responders through collective power, utilizing their network as a platform for claiming the resources, recognition, and identity they deserve from government leaders and other humanitarian stakeholders. She framed the network as an intergenerational space that allows for collective learning, action, healing, and resilience.  

Veloza addressed the specific lessons learned regarding advocacy processes in Colombia as the project tries to position WLOs within the humanitarian system, positing that WLOs in Colombia have been doing critical humanitarian work in her region without always recognizing it as such because they do it without monetary support or linkages to the humanitarian system. She remarked that humanitarian actors have become more open to consulting and listening to women in recent years but have not yet opened the space for them to have decision making power.  

Tsongo then commented on how the participant WLOs of WHS have benefitted thus far from the capacity strengthening activities carried out under the project in the DRC. She noted that through experience sharing and institutional strengthening, local organizations have greater confidence to take on important leadership roles in humanitarian coordination and to more effectively intervene on the ground. WHS has also created a network through which WLOs can advocate and collectively hold accountable the international community. 

Yaftali shared some of the challenges the project has faced in Afghanistan, particularly the de facto authorities’ December 2022 ban on the work of women in NGOs. Alongside security concerns and a general fear among WLOs of sharing information, this was very difficult at the outset of the project. The project has devised solutions to these challenges, first by shifting immediately to online capacity-strengthening activities, and then by prioritizing trust-building among the WLOs throughout the project.  

The panelists also shared global learnings across the project. They mentioned the good practices of the global coordination of WHS, which allows women leaders from different countries to come together in a coalition for international advocacy, understand their shared challenges, and exchange learnings across their contexts. Only in this way will projects contribute to lasting change, beyond project deliverables.  

They also spoke to the impact of the project on the lead partner and learning partner organizations themselves, notably on their own recognition that the hierarchy between donors, INGOs, and WLOs can be flattened via projects like WHS, where the consortium partners have direct access to and contact with their donor. They shared their own interpretation of what “localization” means, citing the importance of challenging power, building local movements, and creating communities for learning.  

The panelists concluded their remarks by sharing their recommendations for what needs to be changed in the humanitarian system to improve the participation and actions of WLOs: 

  1. Equitable partnership and localization must be made more feasible. Humanitarian actors need to make their procedures more flexible and remove barriers for WLOs’ participation in humanitarian spaces; 
  2. Donors should avoid fostering competition instead of collaboration among WLOs by increasing access to information and creating safe processes built on trust; 
  3. Women leaders must be recognized not as beneficiaries of aid, but as frontline leaders with decision-making capacity; 
  4. The international community needs to provide coordination and engage systematically with each of their national contexts. 

Prior to the panel, Marcy Hersh Robinson from the Gender, Age, and Social Inclusion (GASI) team at USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, funder of the WHS project, opened the conversation. Marcy highlighted the importance of ensuring that all Unites States assistance is accessible to and informed by the most marginalized and hardest to reach communities, and that the most effective way to ensure that assistance reaches these groups is through equitable partnerships with the local and national organizations that represent them. She spoke specifically to the importance of the inclusion of women in localization processes, as, without this, a project is not truly locally-owned and -led. She said that projects like WHS allow donors to demonstrate what is possible in the humanitarian sphere when women’s voices are not only included, but powerfully leading humanitarian responses.  

Tamara Jurberg from CARE then gave a brief overview of WHS, explaining the objectives of the project – to increase women’s representation and leadership in humanitarian settings as well as the amount of funding going to women-led organizations (WLOs) that represent their needs – and its three-pronged approach of capacity-sharing, learning, and grantmaking across four countries. She noted that the project follows an equal partnership model, meaning that instead of treating partners as implementing partners, they are equal consortium members who jointly own the leadership of the project’s activities and decision-making. One lead WLO partner in each country provides capacity strengthening activities to 15 participant WLOs, and a learning partner systematizes and gathers the learnings from the project. WHS is a five-year, flexible project, where over 55% of funds go directly to WLOs, that allows partners to sustainably strengthen the institutional and technical capacities of WLOs. 

Next, Matthew Rullo from the UN Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) expanded upon the importance of funding local civil society organizations, and WLOs specifically. He noted the added value of WLOs, which have a proven impact in preventing conflict and radicalization, expanding the reach and effectiveness of humanitarian aid, protecting the fundamental rights of the most marginalized communities, and tackling sexual and gender-based violence, among many other strengths. Yet despite this immense value, the world’s share of funding to local women’s groups is still incredibly low. For this reason, WPHF prioritizes funding WLOs, in the same spirit as the WHS project.   

After a round of insightful questions from the audience following the panel, the event concluded with remarks from Jennifer Chase from the global Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility (GBV AoR). Chase reflected upon the panelists’ emphasis on the importance of intergenerational learning, networks as sharing and healing spaces, influencing decision-making and accountability structures, and the need to do this work without creating competition. She offered robust support and gratitude to WHS partners and expressed that the GBV AoR looks forward to working together to shift power dynamics and move toward equal partnership with WLOs in the humanitarian system.   

About the authors
Megan Kelly

Megan Kelly is the Knowledge Management and Learning Coordinator on CARE’s Voice, Organizational Capacity, Advocacy, and Leadership team, based in New York. She works in partnership with women-led organizations to implement projects aimed at improving their leadership and participation in humanitarian coordination mechanisms. She has six years of experience across the human rights, democracy, and humanitarian aid sectors, focusing on gender equality. Before CARE, she worked with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC supporting grassroots civil society organizations in Latin America. During her Master of Public Administration, she conducted a capstone project supporting Médecins Sans Frontières in identifying gaps in services for migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico, with a particular focus on the gendered experiences of people on the move. She previously completed a Fulbright grant in Bogotá, Colombia in 2016.