Complex political emergencies (CPEs) such as the humanitarian crisis raging in Syria pose significant challenges to the international humanitarian community. The ability to directly implement humanitarian projects is severely compromised in environments characterized by the breakdown of political order and extreme insecurity. Threats to the wellbeing of staff and the lack of a clear central political body with which to work, means that international humanitarian organizations face difficult decisions on how best to deliver assistance to vulnerable populations. Establishing partnerships with local actors is one such potential decision, utilizing their proximity and access to work in areas where international organizations (IOs) cannot.
Working with local organizations in CPEs is by no means a humanitarian panacea and there are indeed significant challenges that need to be overcome. There are very real concerns that providing funding, material, and assistance to local groups could have potentially serious ramifications for the humanitarian principles that underpin the work of IOs. In such complex situations, resources allocated to local actors could be employed discriminately, distributed or withheld to people on the basis of political, religious, or ethnic affiliation. The risk that such resources could also be siphoned off to provide support to warring parties is also ever-present.
Nonetheless, the benefits of working with local partners is well-documented in the literature and, done with care, presents numerous opportunities for effective, sustainable assistance in humanitarian crises – even, or especially, in CPEs. Numerous studies attest to the positive outcomes of taking a “localization” approach to humanitarian assistance, highlighting how local actors not only have access to vulnerable populations, but also possess contextual knowledge vital to assessing and understanding actual humanitarian needs. Proximity and contextual knowledge also ensure that local actors are important agents in the delivery and maintenance of sustainable humanitarian assistance.