Article, Dossier

COVID & the impact on localization efforts

5 case studies

When Covid-19 started to spread around the globe and the international community slowly became aware of its widespread and lasting presence, this also ushered in the realization that the pandemic would likely have an impact on the provision of humanitarian aid around the world. The accessibility issues that logically followed lockdowns and other Covid-related restrictions raised hopes that as a side effect, localisation processes in the humanitarian sector would be revived or accelerated. 

In order to gain a comprehensive overview of how exactly the Covid pandemic affected the work of the humanitarian sector and its localisation efforts, KUNO collaborated with the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. At the request of KUNO, students from this institution performed their thesis research on this topic in the first six months of 2021. They have studied the effect of Covid-19 on humanitarian aid and localisation in different geographic regions, including Syria, South Sudan, India and Uganda. This article summarizes the main findings of these research projects, regarding humanitarian needs, responses and localisation efforts. The thesis report and/or articles written by the students from the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences can be found at the bottom of this page.

Covid-related complications

All of the research projects show that the spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent restrictions both exacerbated existing humanitarian needs and complicated the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Logically, the increasing number of Covid infections amplified the need for health and wash related assistance. Indirectly, however, the pandemic increased many other needs as well. Economic uncertainty and the following deterioration of the global economy led to high inflation in some countries, decreasing purchasing power of already poor families. As a result, many more people became dependent on food assistance. In some areas, this uncertainty and reduced access to goods and services led to instances of violence, whereas we saw a worldwide increase in domestic violence related to mobility restrictions. 

While humanitarian needs only increased in many parts of the world, the capacity of international NGOs to deliver the necessary aid was greatly restricted due to Covid-related circumstances. First of all, strict travel restrictions made it difficult for humanitarian workers to gain access to communities in need. Although cargo was still allowed into countries, there were often delays because drivers needed to be tested for Covid before being allowed to continue. The economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic also led to a decrease in the available funds, increasing the existing funding gap.

Opportunities for localisation

Although the pandemic complicated the work of many international NGOs, it also brought to light new opportunities. As it turns out, during a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, local organisations are much better equipped to respond to humanitarian needs in their communities. They are closer to the recipient communities and therefore quicker to register changed or increased needs. Moreover, their staff has a good understanding of the local restrictions and how to work around them, and are not as much affected by international travel bans. These advantages are demonstrated by Melina Eberwein’s research in Karamoja, Uganda. The Children at Risk project which was the focus of her research, was funded by Kerk in Actie in an effort to localize their response. The value of this localized approach clearly showed in the face of the pandemic, as the close relationship with local governments enabled the project to function under lockdown measures. While KIAs funding idea and flexibility was definitively helpful, the key which enabled the project to continue and quickly adapt throughout the lockdown is the localized consortium structure, their localized structures, and the close and long-standing relations with local governments and local communities.

In a similar fashion, Kilian Krause shows how the DRA joint response in South Sudan became increasingly dependent on local organisations during the Corona crisis, which led to greater flexibility in implementation strategies of SSJR activities and more responsibility over implementation being shifted to local and national NGOs. Moreover, the research done by Laura Wilke in Northern Syria demonstrates that the restrictions experienced by international NGOs there induced stronger local cooperation, more local management of the covid crisis and more flexible funding by donors. 

Hanneke de Graaf, however, paints a diverse picture in her study on humanitarian logistics during Covid-19 in South Sudan. Some organisations experienced a positive change in the position and decision-making power of local actors, while international NGOs had to withdraw their staff and local NGO were able to fill a gap. On the other hand, one organisation experienced a negative impact, as international NGOs and UN agencies claimed more of the work field during the pandemic.

There is still work to do

The above-mentioned examples seem to indicate clear opportunities for localisation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, both Kilian Krause and Laura Wilke note that there are still systemic boundaries that stand in the way of true localisation. Wilke emphasizes the need for international NGOs to advocate for equitable partnerships at the donor level and to increase funding for local capacity building. This is seconded by Krause, who argues that equitable and genuine partnerships that are characterized by the absence of hierarchical structures must be established in order for local NGOs to truly believe that the localisation efforts of international NGOs are sincere. 

Hanneke de Graaf emphasizes the need to come to a common understanding of the meaning, values and principles of localisation. De Graaf: ‘Localisation does not mean to hand over activities, but rather let local organisations lead activities, and give them more power in the decision-making from the start of setting up activities to carrying out said activities.’ De Graaf recommends to organize discussions on these issues with local and international partners. 

That the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be considered a “golden fix” is also demonstrated by Lina Bäuerle’s research on the functioning of local Indian NGOs working on domestic violence during the pandemic. Although the response to domestic violence in India was already localized before the pandemic because of its culturally sensitive nature, it was still strongly affected by Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns. The Indian NGOs that take care of victims of domestic abuse were considered a non-essential service, and therefore had to comply with strict measures that complicated their work. 


Clearly, the worldwide outbreak of the Coronavirus has had a severe impact on humanitarian work. The health risks and economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic exacerbated the needs of people in already fragile situations and at the same time delayed and complicated the provision of humanitarian assistance. The restrictions experienced by international NGOs presented an opportunity for local NGOs to step in and take on more responsibilities. In some respects, this has led to an increasingly localized approach, raising the hopes that international NGOs will accelerate and intensify localisation processes. However, a lot remains to be done for the humanitarian sector to become truly localized and really share decision making power with local actors.

Thesis articles

Further readings