Diaspora groups to lead way on emergency aid

A new research project looks at hooking up diaspora groups with large-scale international NGOs – this is a step forward, but when will diasporan and homegrown NGOs be given the same level of funding?

Why is it that so often when we talk about aid, we talk about help administered by Western NGOs and charities? This set-up still exists, and often dominates, not helped by the major debt-servicing that poorer countries must continue, but on the rise are both Southern NGOs working in their own regions and diaspora groups working with home populations from bases overseas.

The ‘white saviour’ aid paradigm has been looking more and more precarious for a while – especially as its mascots, the likes of Bono and Sir Bob Geldof, are increasingly obviously playing a role that ultimately benefits themselves. Have you seen how much Sir Bob is paid for a speaking engagement on the back of the profile he got from running Live Aid? Don’t look unless you have a sickbag at hand.

Southern NGOs are fighting harder for their share of international funding – and South-South cooperation is on the rise, with greater collaboration and sharing of learning between organisations in Latin America, Asia and Africa, for example – with ELLA being a case in point. Meanwhile, diaspora organisations are mobilising and making the most of the fact that they often have rich linguistic and cultural connections to communities that make it easier to do meaningful grassroots work rather than just complete box-ticking exercises.

When it comes to emergency and crisis work in particular, diaspora organisations can have a key role to play when it comes to understanding how to help people in a way that will be effective quickly.

Examples of what happens when emergency assistance is not adequate, or is misdirected, include Haiti, where failures to deliver health supplies and water issues ensued in a major cholera outbreak; the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, where people on the ground often struggled to make their voices heard when asking for what they actually needed; and post-earthquake Nepal, where people jumping on the plane to help often actually got in the way and slowed down aid efforts.

Unfortunately, systems can conspire against the efforts of diasporans to help. The World Bank estimates that remittances up to a total of US$436 billion were sent to their countries of origin in 2014. This sum accounts for three times as much as traditional development aid. Yet the charges for sending these remittances tend to be disproportionately high when the money is being sent to countries in Africa. Some of the big money transfer companies have been known to suspend or lower charges in emergency situations but lobbying on this could vastly increase the amount of cash that reaches home countries.

Attendees at a recent AFFORD conference, looking into how the African diaspora in the UK can inform and participate in development issues.

UK-based African diaspora development network AFFORD lobbies for the recognition of diasporans and the work they support in their ancestral countries.

Director Onyekachi Wambu says: “We know that diaspora communities are becoming increasingly influential actors in humanitarian crises, often being the first to provide assistance in ways that differ from that of conventional humanitarian actors.”

“In times of emergency, diasporas have access to first-hand information from the affected population; they inject large amounts of cash support; send skilled volunteers to their countries of origin; and access areas and communities that conventional actors sometimes have difficulty accessing.”

Outside Africa, the Syria crisis presents huge obstacles for the conventional emergency aid model – the nature of the conflict makes it hard for international organisations to have a physical presence there or gain access to the areas where help is most needed. Working with local groups is of critical importance. Many Syrian diaspora-led groups either have the connections to provide some level of protection and relief within Syria independently, or they act as implementing partners for international relief organisations. Other groups take a role as intermediaries between local organisations and external funders or networks.

Looking at African examples, there are many to choose from, but certainly the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone was a key case of ‘traditional’ humanitarian organisaitons working with diasporan groups, especially those in the field of healthcare, to respond to the emergency and build resilience.

The Sierra Leone UK Diaspora Ebola Response Taskforce (SLUKDERT) worked with diaspora organisations and individuals with the aim of raising awareness, engaging with and motivating the community to respond effectively to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. In many ways, SLUKDERT acted as a hub – working with the UK-based Sierra Leonean diaspora as well as appropriate UK government ministries involved in delivering assistance.

On a more long-term basis, the Somalian diaspora has, for decades, been involved with supporting services, infrastructure and crisis response at home, with 40% in Somalia estimated to depend on diaspora remittances. Here private donors and aid agencies have tended to have little overlap, and those in the diaspora sending money to people at home have been hit by a crackdown on money transfers to the country.

Diaspora organisations are often small and can face obstacles to receiving the kind of large, sustaining grants that bigger charities and aid organisations attract – but often they have outstanding insight and expertise. There is clearly a pressing need to look at ways in which diaspora organisations can mobilise to address the challenge of bringing in direct funding. In the meantime it may be helpful to see how the scale and clout of major international players can be connected with the credibility and experience of diaspora groups so that interventions are as positive and effective as they can be.

A latrine built through collaboration between Somalian diasporans and Danish Refugee Council

Because there has tended to be relatively little formal relationship between the two types of organisation, a 17-month study is now being carried out. The Diaspora Emergency Aid & Coordination project, as it is called, is funded by the EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department. In the words of its organisers, the project aims to “address these gaps of information, to enhance mutual understanding between diaspora-led and conventional actors of emergency response, and effect better coordination”.

The initiative is a collaboration between AFFORD, which works with the Sierra Leonean diaspora in the UK, the Danish Refugee Council, which works with the Somali diaspora in Denmark, and the Berghof Foundation, which works with the Syrian diaspora in Germany. It is hoped that the research will result in practical lessons on how to build relationships between organisations with scale and organisations with local expertise so as to get the best of both worlds.

One days perhaps, homegrown and diasporan organisations will have scale and be able to attract funding to match their grassroots knowledge and insight. But in the meantime, if working together better means that aid is more intelligent, effective, and gets to those who need it in time, then that is at least a significant step forward.

Source:  This is Africa

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