Decolonisation and Locally Led Humanitarian Action: Shifting Systems Through Networks

January 30, 2023

Over the past few months, Day Four Projects had a chance to work with Start Network: a global effort aiming to shift how much, and how fast, humanitarian assistance flows to those who need it. Over the last 12 years, Start Network has established itself as an important part of the humanitarian assistance landscape, providing a pathway for rapidly accessing funds and support in response to crises the world over. In parallel, the Network has, and is, providing a means for connecting people and organisations with a shared interest in supporting those facing emergencies in ways that are effective, efficient, and locally owned.

Within the broader partnerships landscape, networks have long been looked to as ways of bringing people together – as places of exchange among often diverse and dispersed stakeholders. What is exchanged can be many and varied: information, financial resources, equipment, expertise, relationships. Like other collaborative initiatives, this exchange leads to changes for those who directly receive the resources (i.e. network members), as well as the systems in which the network is embedded. The promise of networks as interventions to shift and change systems has attracted many to invest in network structures, which takes time, money, skill, and hard work.

Those involved in Start Network would likely agree with these sentiments, particularly over recent years as the Network has sought to transition to a more locally-led network model.

In this model, the Network is seeking to foster locally-led ‘Hubs’ of organisations with a real and important presence in specific geographic areas: beginning with a pilot program of Hubs in Guatemala, the Pacific, Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan.

The vision for these Hubs is of locally driven, self-organised, and context-sensitive networks of stakeholders, who are able to rapidly raise and distribute funds in response to local crises.

While this transition will have significant effects on those individuals and organisations who become Hub ‘members’, it likely also impacts upon the broader humanitarian assistance system. How might it influence how finances flow from high-income to low and middle-income countries? How might international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) who operate in multiple regions engage with a regional Hub model? How might established ways of working adapt and evolve to accommodate shifts in power and decision-making authority? These were some of the questions we explored in a series of conversations with stakeholders from across 20 INGOs.

Along the way, we identified practical steps for enabling Hubs to thrive – such as providing clear information on what Hubs are and how to engage with them; sharing lessons learned from existing Hubs on the challenges and solutions to locally-led approaches; and supporting members of Hubs be equipped with the skills, knowledge and capacities to build vibrant, effective and locally-led networks. The process also reinforced the need for change in the broader humanitarian assistance system, where a shared ambition for localisation is being pursued at different rates, in different ways, and with different markers of success.

The Start Network’s locally-led Hub approach is an important move in reshaping the humanitarian action environment, and is providing an important opportunity for many stakeholders to consider their work and approaches in new dimensions. At Day Four Projects, we are delighted to support bold and ambitious collaborations with useful insights to help inform considerations of structure, process, and outcome. We will continue to watch and encourage the Network and look to the future of locally-led networks with interest and optimism.