Women, leadership and localisation: Reflections to mark International Women’s Day 2017


Written by Anne Street, Head of Humanitarian Policy at CAFOD.

For a good chunk of the last couple of years I have been focusing my attention on localisation: the policy and practice shifts in the global humanitarian system needed to truly place national and local responders at the heart of humanitarian action. I have also been reflecting on how change happens, and listened with interest to some of the debates and reflections at the recent ALNAP conference on innovation, and read Duncan Green of Oxfam’s insightful book How Change Happens.

But to mark International Women’s Day 2017 I want to move beyond all that theoretical stuff and pay tribute to 3 amazing and courageous women who I think have done more than most to shift the dial on localisation. Each of these women have used creativity and ingenuity, they have challenged the status quo, stood up for what they believed in and have taken considerable risks in taking bold decisions aimed at making localisation happen.

The first is Jemilah Mahmoud, a Malaysian Medical Doctor who founded the NGO MERCY Malaysia, back in 1999. I first met Jemilah when we sat together on the Board of the Geneva-based NGO humanitarian network ICVA. Subsequently in 2014 Jemilah went on to become Chief of the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat (the WHS). It was in large part due to her vision of an inclusive and global consultation process that local humanitarian actors from every corner of the world and from every discipline and walk of life were able to outline their visions of a more effective humanitarian system and voice their frustrations at the marginalisation they experienced in the face of international actors. This clamour was so loud and so sustained that it could no longer be ignored by the remote policy makers who sit in the global humanitarian HQs in Geneva and New York, and eventually this led to some of the strongest commitments to change which came out of the WHS. But Jemilah didn’t rest with that. She then moved on to the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and became a strong advocate for the localisation agenda when she was one of the few civil society leaders involved in negotiating the Grand Bargain, a set of 10 thematic commitments between donors and UN and INGOs to improve the ways we fund and deliver humanitarian assistance. Jemilah’s negotiating skills enabled her to get included in the Grand Bargain the most tangible commitment in the entire document: to pass as directly as possible 25% of humanitarian funding to national and local actors by 2020, (from a previous figure of less than 1% direct funding). Quite an achievement.

Another inspirational woman leader in the cause of localisation is the Somali Degan Ali, Director of the Kenya-based NGO Adeso and founder of the NEAR Network  of national and local NGOs. Degan is some-one who is not afraid to speak truth to power, as she calls out international actors for paying lip-service to capacity building of national actors, whilst squeezing out local actors’ access to humanitarian funding and to the corridors of power. ‘Prepare to be uncomfortable’ she told participants at the WHS Global Consultation nine months before the May 2016 Summit took place.  Over recent time Degan has made strong calls for reform of the international humanitarian system architecture  to bring in southern civil society actors, and indeed she worked closely with CAFOD and Christian Aid and DanChurch Aid to launch the Charter4Change  in 2015 which commits international NGOs to change the way we work with and relate to our national partners.

The third woman I want to pay tribute today to is Winnie Bayanyima Executive Director of Oxfam International. Winnie has been a visionary leader and since becoming ED she has steered Oxfam towards playing a much more convening role, working to support national actors and supporting local humanitarian leadership and to maximise the complementarities between international and local actors in humanitarian response. A key aspect of this has also been about driving internal change, and in October 2015 Winne committed Oxfam to sign the Charter4Change. This proved to be a significant step for the Charter as other big INGOs then followed suit with CARE International and Islamic Relief Worldwide also signing the Charter, which now has a total of 29 INGO signatories and more than 130 national NGO endorsers.

But beyond these three amazing high profile women leaders are thousands and millions of women across the globe working in ordinary and unsung ways to make the world a fairer, more peaceful and more just place.  I have met some of these women in the course of my work with CAFOD, and they provide a constant inspiration for me.


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