Emma Tomalin University of Leeds

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Olivia Wilkinson Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities

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NGO-isation, Local Faith Actors and ‘Legitimate’ Humanitarian Action in South Sudan

This paper explores findings from research carried out alongside a humanitarian project called ‘Bridging the Gap (BtG): The Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan’. BtG aimed to better understand the barriers that stand in the way of engagement between local faith actors (LFAs) and international humanitarians (IHs) and to introduce learning opportunities (e.g. training and workshops) to address these. We share perspectives from the LFAs who participated in this ‘localisation’ project about what it means to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors that are recognised and trusted by the international system and why this is important for them, as well as what BtG tells us about the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and LFAs’ legitimacy in the eyes of their local communities. We also reflect upon the ways in which the processes of NGO-isation and professionalisation that accompany this journey to become ‘legitimate’, can compromise and undervalue the very qualities that local actors are presumed to possess. This does not indicate the failure of the localisation agenda, but that bold action is needed to make localisation more inclusive in ways that might challenge some areas of humanitarian orthodoxy.

Introduction

In this paper we further explore findings from ethnographic research carried out alongside a humanitarian project called ‘Bridging the Gap (BtG): The Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan’. Our research had two overarching aims. First, we aimed to discern the barriers that stand in the way of engagement between local faith actors (LFAs) and international humanitarians (IHs), particularly considering the increased emphasis upon the localisation of humanitarian aid since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, with its ‘Grand Bargain’ commitment that at least 25 per cent of international humanitarian funding should go as directly as possible to local and national actors by 2020 (World Humanitarian Summit, 2016: 5). Second, we aimed to better understand and analyse the learning opportunities that were facilitated by BtG (i.e. the training and workshops designed to address the barriers that stand in the way of engagement between LFAs and IHs) against the backdrop of recent critical engagement with the localisation agenda, namely that despite good intentions, localisation goals are unlikely to be realised given the colonial legacy of the international humanitarian system (Slim, 2021).

In an earlier paper we focused on the first aim and explored the experiences of LFAs engaging with the international humanitarian system in the context of the localisation agenda (Wilkinson et al., 2022). We examined barriers to the inclusion of LFAs in the international humanitarian system, despite localisation rhetoric, and some of the ways in which LFAs sought to overcome these. To date, the localisation literature has been more or less silent on the role of LFAs, and they remain markedly invisible to the international humanitarian system. This is despite the fact that they have frequently been the first places of refuge or protection for a population during conflicts (Glinski, 2017) and are often first and last responders during a humanitarian crisis, pre-dating the emphasis of the international community on localisation. Moreover, it is not only the affected populations that trust LFAs, but also those meting out violence, since they are less likely to attack religious leaders or to commit violent acts in places of worship, although this does still happen (e.g. the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka and the 2019 Jolo church bombing in the Philippines).1

In this second paper, we analyse the selection process and the learning and training opportunities facilitated by BtG as our starting point, in particular a series of humanitarian skills workshops provided for LFAs to enable them to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors (Thaut et al., 2012: 143). It is important for LFAs to assert their legitimacy to the international humanitarian system, as they currently feel alienated from it and are unable to compete for funding to support their work on an equal basis with national and international organisations, despite localisation rhetoric (Wilkinson et al., 2022). We heard from project participants, both LFAs and IHs, that faith actors are often viewed as not only lacking in capacity to act as effective humanitarians and to follow core humanitarian standards,2 but also that there is a perception from IHs that the religious identity and commitment of LFAs means that they are less likely to be able to follow humanitarian principles. This was particularly felt to be the case with ‘impartiality’, where humanitarian action must be based on need alone and assistance is given without discrimination.3 In this current paper, we frame our discussion around the concept of ‘legitimacy’, where the BtG project itself offers a platform to critically examine not only the legitimacy of LFAs from the perspective of the international system but also the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and LFAs’ legitimacy in the eyes of their local communities. We tie this into an analysis of the learning and training opportunities provided by BtG and how they affected loss or accrual of legitimacy across these domains. Our analysis exposes different epistemological framings between LFAs and IHs about what legitimate and successful humanitarianism looks like and why that needs to be considered more fully in localisation work.

Through an examination of how LFAs were selected to participate in BtG, we build on earlier studies that predate the localisation agenda and look critically at how the international system shapes the kind of organisations that LFAs become in ways that reinforce North–South power hierarchies and the colonial legacy of the humanitarian system (Swidler, 2013; Burchardt, 2013). In these interactions, LFAs imbibe the logic and rationality of international humanitarianism and, as Swidler writes, ‘learn not to pursue their own goals, but to feign an interest in whatever donors are offering, in hopes that, however unpredictably, some resources will come their way’ (2013: 685). Alongside this, we reflect upon the ways in which the processes of NGO-isation and professionalisation that accompany the journey to become ‘legitimate’, can compromise, challenge and undervalue the very qualities that local actors are presumed to possess and that drive the localisation rhetoric in ways that potentially serve to de-legitimise LFAs in the eyes of local communities. These include local networks of trust, knowledge about the needs of local communities and how to address them, and the commitment to remain in conflict zones and other areas affected by humanitarian crises when other actors are forced to leave. In drawing attention to the contradiction that lies at the heart of the localisation agenda – that it can have the adverse effect of weakening and devaluing the qualities of local actors upon which its rhetoric relies – we are not saying anything new (Shuayb, 2022; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018; Roepstorff, 2020; Oelberger et al., 2020; Usen, 2019). Where this paper does make an original contribution is in its focus on how this affects LFAs and how they navigate the process of establishing their legitimacy in the eyes of the international system while potentially risking their legitimacy from the perspective of local communities.

Yet, far from passively responding to the pressures of the international system to conform to its logic, we also share perspectives from the LFAs who participated in BtG about what it means for them to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors that are recognised and trusted by the international system and why this is an important goal. For instance, we examine how they engage in training for purposes of legitimation as opposed to the exclusive pursuit of substantive learning on someone else’s terms, where despite ‘the asymmetrical power relations’ between Northern donors and LFAs, such strategies ‘also engender their own form of power, even if this power remains largely invisible in formal accounts’ (Burchardt, 2013: 31). In their pursuit of legitimacy, however, LFAs are not silent on the extent to which they view the international humanitarian system as credible or legitimate and frequently complain of the localisation agenda as contradictory, paradoxical and disingenuous. A number of the LFA participants strongly resisted stereotypes that rendered them incapable of adhering to humanitarian standards and principles, criticising the humanitarian system for being disingenuous by giving the impression that it had ‘discovered’ localisation and not recognising LFAs’ long-standing contributions. As one of our research participants stated: ‘Localisation started from the humanitarian summit? It didn’t. It has always been there, and local actors have been there … My church, when we were younger, we would go every Sunday … people would contribute and then go see the poor, the people who are unprivileged.’

Building on our earlier paper (Wilkinson et al., 2022), we argue that an increased focus on localisation within the international humanitarian system has sharpened the contradictions and tensions between the different instrumentalities employed by secularised international actors and LFAs in ways that present challenges to the configuration of the humanitarian system itself. This paper not only contributes to a better understanding of the impact of localisation processes on LFAs, but also helps us to see where their local identity and advantage is reinforced by their faith identity and the impact of NGO-isation on this. This learning can be applied to localisation when engaging with LFAs in ways that require greater attention to processes of joint learning and capacity-sharing, even when this might threaten orthodoxies about what and who counts as legitimate in the humanitarian space. In particular, it seems that where the wider humanitarian space is already contesting entrenched international norms, international humanitarians often revert to earlier humanitarian orthodoxies when forming partnerships with LFAs.

South Sudan is a country in a severe and long-standing humanitarian crisis and one that presents significant challenges to humanitarians due to high levels of insecurity. It ranks 185 out of 189 in the UN’s Human Development Index4 and fourth out of 179 states in the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index.5 Following a referendum, it gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. Already economically weak and struggling to recover, by the end of 2013 a new civil war began in South Sudan itself, led by rival political factions (Kindersley and Rolandsen, 2017; Johnson, 2016). While the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan was signed in Khartoum in September 2018, which formally led to the cessation of the conflict, pockets of violence remain and a severe humanitarian crisis persists (Ryan, 2019; OCHA, 2019). Going into 2020, the World Food Programme warned that over 5.5 million people were in danger of famine in 2020 due to flooding and political instability (UN News, 2019). By 2021 the food crisis had worsened further due to a combination of ongoing fighting, serious flooding and donor fatigue (Okech and Kleinfeld, 2021), with one third of the population facing acute food insecurity by 2022 (UN News, 2022).

This extreme and ongoing fragility means that international humanitarian actors are a familiar presence in South Sudan, and that the NGO-isation of civil society is advanced with a well-developed cadre of national NGOs (NNGOs) that play a key role in partnering with international organisations and are active within the UN cluster system. The South Sudan National NGO forum has been significant in coordinating and building the capacity of national level NGOs.6 Yet it has been recognised that there are ‘important challenges to the relevance of national actors’ ability to respond’ when they are based in the capital city Juba and ‘risk becoming disconnected from the communities that they work with’ (Tanner and Moro, 2016:13). As Tanner and Moro write, some people in their study ‘were unable to differentiate between the international NGOs (INGOs) and NNGOs working in their areas, and community members said that they feel better represented by faith leaders or traditional leaders than civil society actors’ (2016: 13).

BtG was a pilot project, which ran between October 2018 and December 2019, and sought to facilitate the engagement of LFAs in humanitarian response in South Sudan through implementing a two-way capacity-sharing model – the ‘Bridge Builder Model’. This model aimed to build the capacity of LFAs through humanitarian skills training, afford the opportunity to apply for funding and execute a humanitarian project in their local area, and provide training opportunities for IHs to learn more about how to partner with LFAs. The project was led by a consortium of six partner organisations – Tearfund UK, Tearfund Belgium, RedR-UK, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) and the University of Leeds – and was funded by the Director-General for Development Cooperation (DGD) of the Belgian government. In addition to the implementation of the Bridge Builder Model as a humanitarian project, an ethnographic study was carried out alongside it, from which we draw the findings discussed in this paper. The following sections of the paper focus on two elements of the ‘Bridge Builder Model’: the selection process to identify LFAs to participate in BtG and the humanitarian skills training. This is followed by a discussion of the role of BtG in addressing the contradictions, paradoxes and disingenuity of localisation.

Methodology

The research side of BtG enabled us to hear from LFAs about taking part in the project from their perspective. The ethnographic research carried out on the BtG project was continuous, with the researchers working from the Tearfund office in Juba and becoming part of the project team. The research had a broader remit than a typical end-of-project evaluation and aimed to study the dynamics of the project itself over its lifetime. The aim of the research was not only to contribute to a more robust design for the Bridge Builder Model, supported by evidence, so that it can be more confidently replicated and scaled up, but also to gather data that are frequently lost in humanitarian work that can contribute to a locally informed understanding of the relationships between LFAs and the international humanitarian system to improve localisation initiatives and the localisation process. The qualitative research comprised the following three elements: first, the analysis of many documents relating to the project, including organisational statements of the LFAs, all the applications and proposals for projects submitted by the LFAs, post-training workshop questionnaires circulated by the RedR-UK trainers after events, and details of what was included in all of the training; second, observation at all the meetings, events and training workshops; and, third, 48 semi-structured interviews with key informants, of which some were group interviews with 2–5 participants, meaning there were 89 research participants in total. There were 10 interviews with consortium members, 19 with LFAs involved in the BtG project, 3 with South Sudanese institutions, 3 with secular INGOs, 2 local/national NGOs, 2 local/national faith-based organisations (FBOs) not otherwise involved in the project, and 7 international FBOs.

The research design was reviewed by the University of Leeds Research Ethics Committee. Participants signed a consent form prior to interviews, and these were mostly conducted in English with some in local languages (i.e. Nuer, Dinka and Juba Arabic), then being transcribed and translated by the South Sudanese members of the research team and the research data analysed using the online software Dedoose. The quotations that we include in our discussion below have been lightly edited for readability.

The Selection Process to Identify LFAs to Participate in BtG

In this section we critically examine the selection process to identify LFAs to participate in BtG and its contribution towards shaping how LFAs become legitimate humanitarian actors while potentially de-legitimising their role in the eyes of local communities as they professionalise and NGO-ise. However, before we do this it is necessary to outline what we mean by LFA. What we are calling ‘local faith actors’ are not hermetically sealed from national and global influences and connections, where the faith traditions they practice are often also prominent across the globe and where their institutional links and leadership structures extend beyond the immediate locality. The term ‘local faith actor’ should not be taken as an essentialist category that clearly distinguishes one type of faith actor from another, but rather as a heuristic device that aims to bring some nuance to the broad-brush term ‘faith-based organisation’ (Wilkinson, 2018). Within the international development/humanitarian complex, the language of the ‘local faith actor’ has become necessary in order to draw attention to the fact that although there has been a ‘turn to religion’ in development and humanitarianism over the past couple of decades (Tomalin, 2013), this has tended to focus on formal FBOs that are national and global in reach, look like NGOs and to a large degree keep their faith identity in the background (Tomalin, 2018, 2020). This has been at the expense of not engaging with and paying attention to the informal and grassroots faith actors, who may also be more expressive in the articulation of their faith and more closely linked to local faith communities, including places of worship and their congregations/memberships. As Wurtz and Wilkinson write, ‘“local faith actor” is a term created purely for international actors and the frameworks within which they operate’ (Wurtz and Wilkinson, 2020: 147) and is not a term used by ‘local faith actors’ themselves unless they have chosen to strategically adopt it and use it.

In identifying LFAs to participate in BtG, the project consortium was compelled by external factors to use different selection processes for Christian and Muslim LFAs, to accommodate the broader religious dynamics in South Sudan that formed the context for the project, which meant that Muslim organisations faced greater scrutiny about their activities. This is an example of where, to be able to work in a particular location in the first place, the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality can be unavoidably compromised by the reality of operating in a setting where international humanitarian actors are obliged to collude with the actuality of a political context that is at odds with their humanitarian principles. While Christian LFAs were informed about the project via advertisements and word of mouth and could freely choose to apply, the process was different for the Muslim LFAs. They were identified from a list of 11 organisations provided by the South Sudan Islamic Council, a government-adjacent body, to ensure their legitimacy as LFAs rather than organisations with Islamist and terrorist links. This is not an uncommon experience for Muslim NGOs, where against the backdrop of the global ‘war on terror’ and regional dynamics that highlight Islamic organisations as particularly at risk of radicalisation they must meet higher benchmarks to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of international humanitarians (Lynch, 2011; Thaut et al., 2012).

This extra level of scrutiny could not be avoided by BtG, yet at the same time served to compound the perception of Islamic LFAs that they are viewed with suspicion. Many of our research participants drew attention to the ways in which Muslim organisations in South Sudan are mistrusted by the state and the majority Christian population, who view them as terrorists and as showing allegiance to Sudan (Salomon, 2014). Religion is not a direct factor underlying the current conflict in South Sudan, where the main competing sides are political rivals who are both Christians. However, religion was a major driver of the two phases of civil war in Sudan, namely between 1963–72 and 1983–2005, when the minority of Christians in the South were discriminated against by the majority Muslim-led government in the North. Thus, a legacy of Christian nationalism, where the Churches were key forces in the independence movement, plays a role in shaping interfaith relations in South Sudan today, where Muslims are in a minority (Tounsel, 2021). Up-to-date figures on religious demography are not available, and statistics on religious adherence tend not to reflect people’s actual religious identities, where data only allows belonging to one tradition when in reality people often practise the so called ‘world religions’ alongside traditional or folk religion (Kane, 2014). However, the Pew–Templeton Global Religious Futures Project suggests the following breakdown: 60.5 per cent of the population are Christian, 32.9 per cent Traditional, 6.2 per cent Muslim, and the remaining 0.4 per cent are other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism.9

While eight LFAs were recruited to participate in BtG (Box 1) there were some challenges in reaching this point and the project did not meet its original target of 16. The reasons for this are relevant to understanding the ways in which both internal and external factors played a role in shaping BtG and its conception of what counted as a legitimate (and in this case a ‘faith-based’) humanitarian actor in ways that do not match the reality of LFAs’ experience and self-identity. First, we heard that some of the organisations that applied were not ‘faith-based’ and were therefore not eligible to be included in the project, where a Christian member of the core BtG consortium told us that an internal requirement of BtG was that they at least needed to have ‘an affiliation to the main church in the area’, or equivalent for Muslim LFAs. It is not clear whether this was because applicants had not paid attention to or understood who the project was targeted at; whether they understood what ‘faith-based’ meant; whether or not the application form to apply for BtG had sufficiently outlined what was meant by ‘faith-based’; or if this confusion is to be attributed to the more general difficulty in defining ‘faith-based’ that has been discussed at length in the literature on faith-based organisations (Tomalin, 2012).

The Local Faith Actors Participating in BtG

Aweil (Northern Bahr el Ghazal State):

Diocese of Aweil Relief and Development (DARD)7 – Episcopal

God is Enough Ministry (GEM) – non-denominational evangelical

St George Catholic Church Committee (ST-GCCC) – Catholic

Juba County (Central Equatoria State):

Islamic Development and Relief Agency (IDRA) – Muslim

Great Lakes Initiative (GLI) – Muslim

Kajo-Keji (Central Equatoria State):

Baptist Convention of South Sudan/ Hope Help Action (BCoSS/HHA) – Baptist

Diocese of Liwolo (DoL)8 – Episcopal

Diocese of Kajo-Keji/Faith and Development Relief Agency (DKK/FADRA) – Episcopal

Second, relating to factors external to BtG, we also heard from a Christian consortium member that some organisations that might seem to be ‘faith-based’ chose to ‘identify themselves as secular organisations as opposed to being identified as faith actors’ and that this seemed to be more the case with Muslim organisations who live with the suspicion of being viewed as having links to terrorism. However, avoidance of identifying as faith-based is in some cases also likely to be a response to bias within the international humanitarian system which disincentivises faith voices, although international FBOs were less likely to exert this pressure given their shared faith-identity with LFAs, underscoring the heterogeneity of the ‘international system’. As one Muslim LFA participant told us, ‘Yes, I believe so many people have failed to come up with Islamic organisations, or Islamic named organisations, because of the fear of the insults, the fear of the follow ups.’ And another Muslim LFA participant explained why they had avoided a name that identified them as Islamic:

So, our view was to try and make sure that the fact that we truly have an inclination to the Islamic faith, does not impede our ability to source resources or to source funding and partnerships that can assist needy communities. And for that reason, we thought it would be best that as much as we do not want to downplay our inclination to the Islamic faith, our work should speak much more about [the fact] that we subscribe to the Islamic faith. But we do not want to spend energy on trying to explain and circumvent and let’s say jump over hurdles that may be placed or come our way by virtue of our faith inclination. And therefore, this is a position that I would say was consciously … taken.

A third reason why it proved harder than anticipated to recruit LFAs for the project related to the fact that in addition to being ‘faith-based’ other key criteria had to be met. These were required by factors that were both external and internal to BtG pertaining to the professional standards that had to be met by the participating LFAs. First, the South Sudan Government requires that any organisations involved in formal partnerships with international donors must be registered with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), set up under the RRC Act, 2016. Second, the internal protocols of the international humanitarians that formed part of the project consortium had their own minimum requirements for partner organisations to whom they would disperse donor funding, including that they should have an office and a constitution and be able to demonstrate a track record in humanitarian work. This is of course a desirable check and balance to reduce the misappropriation of funds, but at the same time had the adverse effect of leaving out the most local and informal actors who may not be registered with the RRC. Moreover, one respondent from a Muslim NGO recalled the lengthy and complicated process that they had to go through to register their organisation with the RRC, compared to Christian organisations, explaining that

they think that [if] something [is] Islamic … either you want to do things on terrorism, or maybe you’re planning to get funds from terrorism or other sects of the religion. Which is a wrong perception … we were started … not for bad, but to do a humanitarian service to the people, but in the name of Islam.

We do not know who these potentially excluded LFAs were, as they did not come forward to take part. It was reported that when the project was advertised there were new applications from Muslim LFAs to register with the Islamic Council and the RRC to be eligible to participate in BtG, indicating that BtG itself was furthering the NGO-isation process. However, it was not just some Muslim organisations that were excluded, but also Christian ones who did not reach the level of organisation required by the eligibility criteria. As one of our Christian consortium member interviewees told us, of the organisations that applied and who were counted as ‘faith based’, many of them

are not organised in the way that we wanted, like the churches … they should be having basic structures [which] puts aside ordinary churches that have responded to humanitarian needs … But when it comes to structure, does that church have the structure that we were dreaming for?

Another Christian consortium member also explained that, as well as reducing the number of LFAs participating, BtG also ended up working with organisations that were already known to ‘be able to participate and be motivated for the project’ and which had the required structures. This included organisations from the Episcopal Church which fitted the selection criteria more effectively than those from some other Christian denominations as well as Islam. The Episcopal Church in South Sudan is an established humanitarian actor through the South Sudanese Development and Relief Agency (SSUDRA) and has the structures required for participation by BtG and other humanitarian projects. Similarly, some other LFAs had already begun to shift in this direction, setting up separate wings or branches through which to coordinate their humanitarian response. As a respondent from one of the participating Christian organisations told us:

When the war broke out, the people ran to the church, so the church had to put in shelter. We thought of how shall we as a Baptist Convention of South Sudan, come with a humanitarian wing so that that humanitarian wing can be able to deal with the crisis that will drag, so we came up with that initiative and we formed Hope Health Action (HHA).

By contrast, it proved harder to form partnerships with faith actors that did not already have this kind of organisational separation between the religious and humanitarian activities, such as Pentecostals and Muslims. One of our consortium members representing a Muslim organisation suggested that, overall, the Christian LFAs had greater existing capacity to be part of BtG because of the organisational structures that exist within the churches. By contrast, although the mosques do engage in humanitarian activities, she felt that it was ‘more ad hoc… not part of a larger strategy or of a larger way of working’. However, one of the Muslim LFA participants described their journey, which indicates a move towards greater professionalisation to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors:

Our organisation was registered in 2018, though we were doing some charity since 2016. And as my colleague has said, it was not being recorded and there was no accountability. So we realised for us to get serious funding we needed to have an office and we needed to have a registration certificate. As being a Muslim organisation we went ahead and registered with the Islamic Council. So, I believe from the Islamic Council, Islamic Relief found our organisation and we were shortlisted … and then we went through the capacity assessment and the due diligence, and that’s how we became partners. But after a long struggle and a long wait.

The Humanitarian Skills Training for LFAs

Building on the previous section, which examined the selection process for LFAs to participate in BtG, here we continue our discussion of how BtG aimed to enable LFAs to become legitimate humanitarian actors, through consideration of its learning and training activities, in particular a series of humanitarian skills workshops. Swidler notes the importance of ‘training’ as ‘the central NGO activity’ (2013: 684) but is critical that it often serves to ‘reinforce symbolic modernity, while rewarding volunteers with capricious, unpredictable access to resources’ (2013: 684) and ‘rewarding not technical skills that help solve local problems, but earnest attention to whatever buzzwords and phrases donors regard as the latest hot topic’ (2013: 685). Undoubtedly, ‘localisation’ has become a ‘buzz word’ and a ‘hot topic’, but rather than renouncing it outright as bound to failure and inevitably promoting perverse incentives, there is a need for studies that critically address its limitations and which also make visible concerns about the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and other local actors.

The aim of the humanitarian skills training was to ‘increase faith actors’ knowledge and skills to contribute to humanitarian response’.10 It consisted of three sets of four days of training, carried out in three locations. Humanitarian Skills 1 (HS1) included ‘the components and sequence of the humanitarian programme cycle’; ‘humanitarian standards and principles’; ‘how to develop a project intervention and submit it in a grant application form’; and ‘monitoring and evaluation (M&E) techniques and tools and design of an M&E plan’. HS2 included ‘accurate report writing’; ‘good accountability in humanitarian response’; and ‘resource management’.11 HS3 included ‘identify dilemmas and ethical considerations of humanitarian response in local faith actors’ own context and analyse their impact’; safeguarding; and creating a closure plan for programmes.12 The training was delivered by RedR-UK, and while the training elements themselves were the same as those that would be used for non-faith actors in any location, the trainers made it relevant to the South Sudan context and took account of the identity of the participants as faith actors, reporting that they were able to contextualise as appropriate, while still maintaining the standards that they teach in other RedR-UK courses. One of the trainers also explained that

[we] also really emphasised their comparative advantages, so yes both Islamic and Christian faith-based actors, they’ve got really good comparative advantages over international NGOs, they have a much greater reach into local culture, into areas that internationals or perhaps UN based are not able to get into … and actually encouraged all actors to use to their advantage … when they sell themselves to potential donors.

Framing HS1 was a broader discussion that asked participants to reflect on their motivation for humanitarian action and how they felt they were perceived by beneficiaries and international humanitarians. In discussing motivations, some LFAs challenged the legitimacy of donors and international organisations, perceiving them as lacking transparency and accountability in their humanitarian response, and this acted as an impetus for those LFAs to become involved in humanitarian action. They believed that their religious teachings meant that they naturally followed humanitarian principles in their work, demonstrating greater integrity and legitimacy than many international actors. LFAs claimed that in being guided by their faith, they can deliver better quality services than international organisations, again underscoring the point that LFAs often do not trust the humanitarian work done by INGOs. This was reinforced in an interview with a Muslim member of one of the consortium organisations who argued that

the faith element in faith-based organisations fosters the responsibility to deliver assistance to the needy and they are not driven by emoluments [salaries/payments]. Because of religious values, the work of LFAs is more productive because they will deliver humanitarian aid and assistance to the most remote and volatile areas without worrying about their equipment like cars or worrying about their security. They take risks to fulfil their roles. In comparison, secular humanitarian actors are usually concerned about security, safety and standards.

In terms of motivation, others wanted to contribute towards cultural change in South Sudan, through tackling harmful practices, such as those that discouraged exclusive breastfeeding, and advancing beneficial ones, such as encouraging home deliveries rather than in health facilities. In addition to being motivated to help people, where they are guided by their faith and believe that to be their calling in life to serve people affected during humanitarian disasters, it was also noted that being an LFA humanitarian worker brought them an income which they needed to support themselves and their families.

In the discussion about how LFAs felt they were perceived by beneficiaries and international humanitarians, we heard that beneficiaries know and trust LFAs better than they do international actors, viewing them as having greater legitimacy, and consider LFAs as their preferred service providers for humanitarian response. Another key aspect of local acceptance and legitimacy that is at odds with that favoured by the international system, relates to religious attitudes towards humanitarian giving. While international donors have the expectation that LFAs should be publicly documenting and widely reporting on their work, with the associated expectation that they should have visibility in their activities to demonstrate their skill and capacity, religious attitudes require humility and not ‘showing off’ about their achievements. As one Christian LFA respondent noted:

If you take the biblical understanding, literal understanding, that whenever you give somebody something, don’t preach about it, don’t talk about it, give it silently, then donors will think, ‘We gave this money, they have not reported back and what is happening? Probably it was taken by someone else.’

This position of humility challenges donor norms, where in many cases ‘visibility’13 is one of the requirements of the assistance. Meanwhile, some LFAs held the view that other humanitarian actors perceive them as their competitors and therefore do not want to involve them in humanitarian response activities, strategically downplaying their legitimacy as part of this process. However, they also pointed to a paradox in the current localisation drive, which they viewed as triggered by a desire to sustain projects at a lower cost since using local and national NGOs is more cost effective compared to INGOs. At the same time, however, donors and INGOs viewed local and national actors, including LFAs, as lacking the capacity to deliver humanitarian services. It seemed that rather than lacking capacity per se, which is contrary to the capacity assessment process mentioned above that demonstrated all the participant organisations were already competent humanitarians, the barrier to inclusion was that they lacked a certain type of capacity to be viewed as ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors and that what this consists of is subject to the vagaries of the international system. As one participant asked rhetorically, ‘How can you say that we have no capacity to assist the beneficiaries when they first sought assistance from us and we were able to help them?’

The LFAs we spoke to strongly resisted the stereotypes and assumptions made about them by international actors and were keen to point out the double standards that were evident when the international system required them to adhere to principles and practice that they could see were not always being followed elsewhere in the system. The unwillingness to trust local actors, even as the localisation agenda develops, is a widespread concern and noted as example of the disingenuity of the localisation agenda. As Moro et al. note, ‘some South Sudanese NGOs believe that an inherent lack of trust meant they were held to a higher standard than INGOs’, and this was certainly the case for Muslim LFAs (2020: 32). Nonetheless, despite these frustrations, they were very enthusiastic to take part in BtG to help them address the gaps in their ‘professional’ practice as well as to become part of the formal humanitarian system. On the one hand, despite confidence in their ability to cater to communities affected by humanitarian crises and the trust that local communities place in them, LFAs did acknowledge that their competency in the specifics of many of the professional aspects of humanitarian action was lacking. Areas covered in the humanitarian skills training that were particularly valued included the importance of learning to keep good financial accounts, writing funding proposals, documenting their work, and implementing reporting protocols. For instance, one Christian LFA participant explained that before the training ‘we used only to pick from members of the church, whenever we want to recruit, we don’t follow HR procedure’ but that now

we have to follow these procedures, we have to advertise, we have to make contracts, interviews, whatever, all these things, so it was really also very good for us … we found that now, we are coming closer to the standard way of doing things so our organisation now can compete with other organisations because we have policies in place.

On the other hand, in addition to underscoring the value of the learning, to improve the quality of their humanitarian offering, this quote also suggests a broader strategic goal to undertake the training to prove their legitimacy to the wider humanitarian system and to increase their chances of securing funding. This underscores how they engage in training for purposes of external legitimation and to become part of the system as well as the pursuit of substantive learning. For instance, another LFA participant valued the ability to now speak the ‘humanitarian language’ where

since we began this training, right now I talk humanitarian language, I talk more of human rights, I talk more of risk analysis, risk management and it’s really helped me much.

Even more so than the assumption that they are viewed as ‘lacking capacity’ for humanitarian action, LFAs were critical of the view held by many international humanitarians that they were more likely to show a preference for supporting members of their own faith tradition and would be unable therefore to meet the humanitarian principle of impartiality. The assumption that INGOs are always better able to resist weak application of humanitarian principles and are therefore more legitimate than local or national actors is another limitation to improving localisation processes (Moro et al., 2020: 43). However, LFAs also reported to us that beneficiaries too were sometimes concerned about receiving support from them – and trusted them less than IHs – out of fear that that they were going to experience pressure to convert to a different religion, although this concern did not seem to be universal. LFAs strongly rejected the suggestion that their faith identity meant that they were less likely to be able to follow humanitarian principles, with impartiality assumed to be a particular challenge. Many stressed that humanitarian principles were identical to their religious teachings and that this meant that it was easy for them to put humanitarian principles at the centre of their work. As one Christian LFA participant noted:

I think the humanitarian principles are really in line with our norms as the Church, so they are like reinforcing our norms. As a faith-based organisation, we are also being guided by the Ten Commandments, so we found it relating very well with our commandments – that we have to really look at people as human beings, how you treat them.

And according to a Muslim LFA participant who had completed the humanitarian skills training:

Most of these humanitarian principles … are picked from the Quran writings as a standard on humanitarian [action]. This standard is in the Quran. When you talk of neutrality – it is in the Quran. So when we are doing our humanitarian work and lean ourselves on the Quran, we are much better. I feel like we are well set to go, because unless you don’t follow the Quran and you don’t follow the standards, then you'll get lost in the middle. But if you have gone through and checked all the meanings of what the Quran is talking on humanity, on serving the poor, and serving the sick, then there is no difference.

Others explicitly rejected proselytisation alongside humanitarian action. As one Christian LFA interviewee put it:

But we don’t also use development as a way of converting people to religion. When we come to humanitarian activities, we just offer them the need [i.e. assistance] they want and the activities they want, but we don’t use it as a way of converting them through our activities. If there are those who want to become religious, it is their choice.

It is difficult to tell whether these strong assertions of the complementarity of humanitarian principles and religious teachings that leads to faith-based humanitarian action that is impartial, neutral, and non-proselytising would have been expressed by all participants prior to the training workshops. This could reflect what they have learnt through participating in BtG. Nor is it possible to know how much they have focused their assistance on members of their own faith tradition, as no one owned up to that if it did happen. However, one interviewee working for an international organisation told us that from what he had observed, while some Muslim LFAs in South Sudan did focus on beneficiaries from their own faith tradition, this was less likely to be the case for Christian LFAs. The validity of this statement is difficult to ascertain given that it could be based upon the bias of the interviewee. Moreover, we cannot assume though that, if this is true, it is necessarily the direct result of not following or being committed to humanitarian principles and could be circumstantial. For example, some LFAs are more likely to be naturally working in areas where members of their own faith tradition are concentrated. This is likely to be the case for minority groups that due to their size and status are more inclined to cluster in certain areas, with their LFAs concentrating their humanitarian efforts in that space. By contrast, LFAs from the wider population, which due to its size and dominance is more spread out, have greater capacity to reach out to minority groups in their work. We also heard that religious dynamics in South Sudan mean that Muslim LFAs lack confidence and capacity more than their Christian counterparts, suggesting they are less likely to broaden their support to other communities. Moreover, concerns about the intentions of Muslim LFAs to convert other religious populations likely acts as disincentive to work across faith communities. Indeed, in settings where there is religious tension or a lack of understanding between faith groups, for LFAs to reach out intentionally to other faith groups could also risk weakening the trust and legitimacy that they have with members of their own tradition that can give them an advantage in humanitarian response at a local level. Therefore, a perceived lack of attention to impartiality could also be a pragmatic response to the local context.

Discussion: BtG and the Contradictions, Paradoxes and Disingenuity of Localisation

As already discussed, a key contradiction at the heart of the localisation agenda is that NGO-isation has the adverse effect of weakening and devaluing the qualities of local actors upon which its rhetoric relies. Moreover, despite wanting to engage with LFAs to improve humanitarian outcomes, the strict framing of what counted as an LFA in the selection process undermines potential partnerships and acts as a barrier to effective local engagement. At the same time, it is paradoxical that localisation initiatives promote working with local actors (although some of our LFA participants viewed this sceptically as motivated by a desire to save money) yet do not view them as having capacity to undertake effective humanitarian action, and international humanitarians are hesitant to grant them the same legitimacy as international actors. Finally, LFA respondents found aspects of localisation disingenuous, where local actors are held to higher levels of accountability and international humanitarians act as though they ‘discovered’ localisation.

Our analysis of the process to select LFAs for participation in BtG, as well as the reflections of LFAs on the assumptions that are made not only about their capacity to engage in humanitarian action but also the type of capacity they need to develop in order to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors, reinforces observations made in other studies that ‘power dynamics are at the heart of the localisation agenda and also one of its most significant obstacles’ (Barbelet et al., 2021: 60; Wall and Hedlund, 2016; Van Brabant and Patel, 2018; Barbelet, 2019; Fast and Bennett, 2020; Melis and Apthorpe, 2020). Our data suggests that LFAs were keen to participate in BtG to learn how to become the kind of ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actor that is trusted by the international system, and not simply because they felt that they did not know how to be humanitarians per se. However, Moro et al. (2020) recognise the pressures on local NGOs and other community-based organisations (CBOs) to ‘“mirror INGOs”, shifting their focus and areas of expertise in order to access funding’ (2020: 37). They describe how local NGOs and CBOs tend to begin life as small-scale ‘side projects’ (2020: 31) of their founder that are ‘rooted in a specific location’ (2020: 30). This corresponds to our observations about how LFAs develop, which in their incipient phase typically operate from a place of worship embedded within their own faith community. Our research indicates that the Muslim organisations were much more in this incipient ‘local’ phase than many of the Christian ones who had already developed separate humanitarian wings to manage the outreach aspects of their work. It was noticeable also in our interviews that the more institutionalised diocesan relief and development arms of the Episcopal Church (i.e. DARD and DKK) were the ones who reported previous humanitarian skills training, whereas the others did not report this as much.

However, Moro et al. (2020) also point out that if local NGOs/CBOs want to secure international funding and to win the trust of international organisations, there is an incentive to reinvent themselves as NNGOs and to establish a presence in Juba, the capital city, leading to the neglect of ‘development and resources in the periphery’ (2020: 51). This process of NGO-isation is also a risk for LFAs, where key aspects of their distinctive role in humanitarian action, as well as their legitimacy in the eyes of local communities, may be lost, not only in terms of them becoming distracted from a focus on local needs but also in terms of the role of their faith identity (De Wolfe and Wilkinson, 2019). There is a risk that the strong connection with local communities, in which a shared faith identity that has roots in a particular location plays a key role in shaping and strengthening their response, will become weakened as LFAs spread out to cater to other groups including those that are not of their faith tradition.

One solution to this, that does not sit well with humanitarian orthodoxy, is, as Maxwell contends, that ‘rather than ensuring every actor behaves the same, adherence to humanitarian principles needs to be reframed at the level of the whole of the response’ (2018: 8). On the one hand, this would accommodate the way that some LFAs work and allow them to retain the distinctive bonds that they have with their communities. Instead of insisting that all LFAs always deliver aid impartially, it may be more productive to look at the complementarity of different LFAs according to the assistance they provide to members of their faith tradition, while at the same time ensuring that the overall response does not leave anyone out. From this perspective, impartiality is not an absolute and there are ways to work in a non-discriminatory fashion that allows LFAs to work in a complementary way according to their unique local perspectives. This kind of coordination is potentially complex but is feasible and could be carried out by local NGO coordination fora. On the other hand, this is likely to be seen by many as a very contentious approach and to play into a bias that acts against the inclusion of LFAs as legitimate humanitarian actors, considering that people are most suspicious of LFAs because of fear that they will favour their co-religionists. Given the fact that impartiality is so sacrosanct, even in comparison to any of the other principles, such an approach could immediately alienate LFAs from funders and mean that they are even more unlikely to be considered as viable partners. Moreover, while many LFAs strive for impartiality and do so as part of their nature, reflecting religious principles of human dignity for all, some do not and are purposefully exclusionary and/or pressure conversion. With respect to such LFAs, a strong commitment to impartiality by the wider humanitarian community is a strong signal about what is expected of legitimate humanitarian actors and demonstrates the potential complexity of a ‘complementary impartiality’ approach.

Another risk of NGO-isation for LFAs is not just a weakening of their local faith connections to the communities they seek to help, but also a downplaying of their faith identity, as we saw in the example of some Muslim LFAs avoiding identifying as faith-based and adopting secular names for their organisations. This risks the comparative advantage that many of our interviewees felt LFAs offer in providing something distinctive to their communities through their tangible assets such as places of worship, volunteer labour and faith networks, as well as their intangible assets that include a focus on spiritual and psychological needs alongside physical ones, and the impact of prayer and other ritual activities upon the experiences and resiliency of affected communities (Schwarz, 2018). Yet we also observed that the LFAs participating in BtG were adopting a strategy seen more widely among FBOs, where they were cultivating the ability to ‘shift register’ within the humanitarian space from a faith lexicon to a secular lexicon according to their audience (Tomalin, 2018). This was facilitated by the setting up of separate welfare wings as a way of managing the secularism of the international system while at the same time retaining a faith identity to connect with local communities. As a member of a Christian organisation told us, in 2013 when thousands of displaced people came from Bor to Juba, some ‘stakeholders… were doing prayers and counselling in the morning and evening but we are not part of it. We are an Anglican organisation but were not there as part of the church. We are there as humanitarians only.’ And according to another Christian LFA respondent:

We are Baptist and the HHA has nothing to do with faith. When we are under the Church we do church work and, when we are out, we are HHA. HHA is a charity organisation (Christian) and when it comes to assistance, we help all … We always advise the Bishop on humanitarian standards so that there is a distinction between the Church and aid.

Conclusion

At the heart of BtG was a two-way capacity-sharing model – the ‘Bridge Builder Model’. This model aimed to build the capacity of LFAs through humanitarian skills training, the opportunity to apply for funding and execute a humanitarian project in their local area, and training opportunities for IHs to learn more about how to partner with LFAs. This paper has focused on the humanitarian skills training aspect and has examined this in the context of recent debates about the opportunities and limitations of the localisation agenda and what this tells us about ‘legitimacy’: of LFAs from the perspective of the international system, the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and LFAs’ legitimacy in the eyes of their local communities. This analysis has revealed contradictions and paradoxes that do not necessarily indicate the failure of the localisation agenda but do nonetheless require bold action that might challenge some areas of humanitarian orthodoxy. Aspects of BtG clearly reinforce these contradictions and paradoxes due to its embeddedness in the international humanitarian system yet also offer significant scope to address them too through creating opportunities for shared learning between LFAs and IHs to foster partnerships and build two-way capacity.

The contradictions, paradoxes and disingenuity of localisation are, we contend, part of a broader set of critical issues facing humanitarianism and we ask with Gordon and Donini (2016) whether the ‘classical’ or ‘Dunantist’ understanding of humanitarianism is still relevant. Our analysis has revealed that the different epistemological framings between LFAs and IHs about what legitimate and successful humanitarianism looks like deserves fuller consideration in localisation work. We argue that localisation should not seek to make local actors like international ones but that an integral part of the localisation process needs to take account of the methods and principles of humanitarianism adopted by local actors and for them to play a role in reshaping humanitarianism. The assumption that there is a unified humanitarian community is a colonial legacy, and instead different instrumentalities are employed by secularised institutional actors and the LFAs they attempt to engage. If we are serious about localisation and decolonising the aid sector different approaches matter and need to be taken seriously (Gordon and Donini, 2016: 102).

Despite the above challenges and considerations, it is important not to assume that LFAs do not aspire to follow humanitarian principles and do not see the value in impartiality for ethical humanitarian practice. Also, in raising concerns about the limitations of localisation when it assumes that local actors must become like INGOs, we should not assume that LFAs do not also aspire to gain the trust of the international humanitarian actors and to learn how to become a better fit for the international humanitarian system. However, neither can we assume that LFAs are passive actors that will not resist NGO-isation, given the ways in which the current system works against their distinctive qualities and attributes rather than with them. While LFAs currently know they must abide by the international humanitarian standards and so they conform to the system and are keen to learn about how to be part of it, there is a bigger critique that the system is not fit for purpose and needs to change in a much more extensive way. One way forward is to re-examine how the authentic capacities of local actors, including LFAs, can be not just recognised but become an inherent part of modern humanitarian action. When it comes to LFAs this might mean challenging some of the most deeply embedded norms of the humanitarian system.

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the participants who took part in this research. We acknowledge the partners who were involved in the BtG project including all those at RedR-UK, Tearfund UK, Tearfund South Sudan, Tearfund Belgium, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Islamic Relief South Sudan, and the local faith actors who were involved in the project. Specifically, we acknowledge the contributions of Kuyang Harriet Logo, University of Juba, South Sudan, and Wani Laki Anthony, Independent Consultant, Juba, South Sudan, who carried out most of the fieldwork, and of Florine De Wolf, Independent Consultant, Brussels, Belgium who coded the interviews.

Notes

1

BBC News (2019), ‘Sri Lanka Attacks: What We Know about the Easter Bombings’, 28 April, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-48010697 (accessed 7 May 2023); ‘Jolo Church Attack: Many Killed in Philippines’, 27 January, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47018747 (accessed 7 May 2023).

2

Sphere Project (2015), The Core Humanitarian Standard and the Sphere Core Standards: Analysis and Comparison, Interim Guidance, February, ReliefWeb, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Sphere_Core_Standards_and_CHS.pdf (accessed 9 August 2022).

3

OCHA (2012), ‘What Are Humanitarian Principles?’, OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles, June, ReliefWeb, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/ocha-message-humanitarian-principles-enar (accessed 9 August 2022).

4

UNDP Human Development Reports/Country Insights, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/latest-human-development-index-ranking (accessed 9 August 2022).

5

Fund for Peace Fragile States Index, https://fragilestatesindex.org/country-data/ (accessed 9 August 2022).

6

South Sudan NGO Forum / About Us, https://southsudanngoforum.org/about/ (accessed 9 August 2022).

7

Diocese of Aweil Relief and Development (DARD), http://aweil.anglican.org/?PageID=dard2018 (accessed 9 August 2022).

8

Diocese of Liwolo (DoL), https://liwolo.anglican.org/ (accessed 9 August 2022).

10

BtG project documentation.

11

Ibid.

12

Ibid.

13

For example, it is a contractual obligation for EU humanitarian assistance, www.dgecho-partners-helpdesk.eu/visibility/main-requirements/standard-visibility (accessed 7 May 2023).

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