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Building Local Capacities

Article 6 of the Code of Conduct affirms the principle that "we shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities” and specifies that this means "employing local staff, purchasing local materials and trading with local companies”. It also means "working through” local humanitarian NGOs and "cooperating with local government structures where appropriate”.

The main moral thrust of this principle concerns affected people’s capability and their right to take charge of their own survival and recovery. As a dignity principle, it is about people’s right to retain the dignity of their own agency and autonomy as actors in their own lives and the lives of others dear to them. The principle affirms people’s dignity as human subjects and not the humanitarian objects of others. Rightly, this theme continues strongly in Articles 7, 8 and 10.

The local capacity principle combines the autonomy and self-determination of political ethics with the principle of grassroots effectiveness and sustainability in community development ethics. Politically, this aspect of humanitarian ethics is particularly intended to avoid the wrongful interference, paternalism and authoritarian practices of colonialism that rightly haunts the conscience and traditions of many Western agencies. Politically, Article 6 properly seeks to pass humanitarian power to affected populations and to their own governing structures. Developmentally, the principle recognizes the technical wisdom that local knowledge often knows best and is also best placed to respond if it has sufficient resources and skills. Local capacity is thus the best value for money and the most likely humanitarian structure to succeed and last. Much of the development ethics implicit in the Code draws on the ideas of developmental relief or the relief-development continuum that were converted from philanthropic common sense into formal disaster theory in the 1980s and 1990s.3 These ideas were then actively taken up into humanitarian policy and programming by the Red Cross Movement, UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs.

Like Article 5, the local capacity article is also hedged with a conditional phrase—"where possible”—which again marks out the principle as obligatory but open to exceptions. As with Article 5, expediency might be one legitimate exception to this principle too: the need for speed, high levels of capacity and large volumes of relief commodities which local structures cannot manage and absorb during a period of extreme crisis.

This urgency exception would mean balancing humanity above the local capacity principle for a certain period. But any initial exception to the capacity-building principle would need to be mitigated by subsequent efforts to integrate local capacities into wider humanitarian programmes by carefully handing over roles, resources and responsibilities for the remainder of the crisis and in preparation for new ones.

Another exception to the local capacity norm is likely to arise from more principled concerns around neutrality and independence rather than logistical concerns of capacity. This political exception to the local capacity principle will arise from a conflict between neutrality, independence and capacity-building where humanitarian action’s political principles of neutrality and independence balance out above the local capacity principle. This rightly happens when local agencies and/or local government and local communities cannot be politically relied upon to operate in line with humanitarian ethics but are likely to use aid resources to pursue partisan or inhumane military or political objectives. A government may manipulate aid to discriminate against enemy civilians or rival groups, or it may take control of aid only to withhold it. A local elite within an affected community may capture aid processes and exclude important parts of that community. In such situations, and if it is feasible to do so, it is right for international agencies to retain more control and capacity in humanitarian programmes than usual.

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