Localization of disaster aid slow in the Philippines

October 28, 2020
Network map of surveyed humanitarian actors working on disaster preparedness and resilience in the Philippines. | HHI/Root Change

Massachusetts, USA — A study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) has found a reliance on international actors within the disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) system in the Philippines. A continued reliance on international aid agencies means the Philippines is not realizing its full potential for utilizing local organizations to bolster the country’s DRR and CCA system, HHI researchers warned.

“Local community-based organizations (CBOs) and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as national and local government units are best positioned to respond to disasters. Our research points to the continued central networked role international aid agencies play in the Philippine disaster system,” said HHI Resilient Communities program director Vincenzo Bollettino in a statement.

“Further progress is needed to ensure that local agencies are empowered to respond without international support,” he added.

The study, published on 29 October 2020, involved face-to-face and online surveys from 2017 to 2019 and a network mapping among 501 international and local organizations with disaster and climate-related projects in the Philippines.

The study participants were NGOs, CBOs or people’s organizations (POs), local government units (LGUs), government agencies, schools or research institutions, faith-based organizations, private organizations or companies, and affiliates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Preference toward international actors

HHI, Harvard University’s humanitarian research center, said that the findings of their study suggest that there is “preferential attachment” toward international actors within the Philippine DRR system.

In the study, international actors were found to be the top “influencers” or those well-connected organizations that spread information quickly across the network. They were also cited by most network actors as the top “brokers” or those that facilitate interaction between big and small actors in the system.

Furthermore, international actors, along with the government, were found to be the top “collaboration hubs” or those connecting local organizations that otherwise would be disconnected within the larger system. They were also the top “resource hubs” or those to whom other actors seek expertise from.

Preferential attachment is a common phenomenon that can occur in humanitarian aid systems, where existing system actors are more likely to associate with organizations that have the most links and connections, and opportunities for funding. Unsurprisingly, when international agencies set up operations, they quickly become the target of preferential attachment by local actors, HHI said.

Potential risks

The network actors’ preference to collaborate with international actors rather than local actors can have initial positive effects, as seen in the Philippines. However, such behavior can build a dependency on international actors, and can pose threats to the sustainability of the local DRR system, HHI said.

In fact, the study found that the potential risks of preferential attachment toward international actors is present in the Philippines. Out of 387 actors that had relationships with other actors in the network, only 15% or 59 were international actors. But when removed, the total relationships between actors were reduced to 1,905 from 3,146, losing 39% of relationships. The loss of these international actors also made 41 local actors “isolates” or having no connections to the rest of the network.


International actors were found to have more relationships with sub-national than national actors, which is an indication that they have the potential to reach local levels. However, most of the relationships between international and sub-national actors (87%) were from sub-national actors to international actors rather than the other way around. HHI said, this suggests that the flow of information, technical assistance, and resources was top-down.

“This kind of network behavior demonstrates a weakness in the resilience of the local system and local actors’ ability to maintain coordination and collaboration when international actors withdraw their support,” Bollettino said.

Sub-national actors are local organizations who work only within a specific locality or region, while national actors are local organizations who work throughout the country.

According to HHI, a shift in the role of international actors within the system is expected over time. It is common for international actors to eventually transfer their roles of fostering local system connectivity to a range of emerging local leaders at all levels. This process, called “localization,” puts local actors in the forefront and support them to lead humanitarian efforts.

“Eventually, we would want to see more local to local ties fostered between sub-national and national actors, government, and other local institutions,” Bollettino said.

HHI’s study was conducted in cooperation with international non-profit organization Root Change. HHI has been conducting research and training projects on disaster and climate resilience, and humanitarian leadership in the Philippines since 2015.

You may access the full HHI report here.