How to Achieve Localization in the Aid Sector

Tarek Alsaleh, winner of the Inspired Leadership Award 2018, discusses the many benefits of organizing aid though local initiatives as opposed to bureaucratic foreign aid models.

by Tarek Alsaleh, June 19, 2018
local aid

This article originally appeared on TwentyThirty.

In the aid sector, each organization is competing with each other – for money, for visibility, for paying their employees’ salaries. Local initiatives are struggling to survive, worn down by bureaucracy. Tarek Alsaleh, who just won the Inspired Leadership Award 2018, has some ideas to stop the craziness. Here are his personal insights.

1. The Camp

I’m on my way to Al Tanf, a refugee camp between the Syrian and Iraqi borders.

It’s a four-hour drive from Damascus, a long empty road with nothing. Suddenly, on the right you see a lot of tents in the middle of nowhere.

I’m a sports teacher running capoeira classes. Capoeira was born out of slavery in Brazil. There is live music, sport, and play – and there are no winners or losers. The kids love it!

There are children everywhere. They spot us. Screaming, laughing, chanting “bidna capoeira” (we want capoeira). They help us unload the instruments, we kiss plenty of babies… and drink tea with their mamas and papas.

There is an 8-year-old girl, Salma (name changed). Her mum tells me she hasn’t spoken for over a year.  She sits silently on the edge of the group. Watching. Slowly, she gets closer and sits with the other kids. This day was the day she started singing.

Live music, sport, and play are powerful. It helps us to forget our anger and frustrations and to release them in a healthy way. If you give these kids an instrument, next week they play better than you. 

And Unicef saw this. They – and other organizations – saw the hope that our project brought, and they wanted to work with us.

I was so proud, all these organizations. I thought that is such a big deal.  

But that’s not the story I’m going to tell you. Because I had a problem...


2. The Problem

Suddenly I had to spend a lot of time at my computer, doing a lot of paperwork to fill out log frames/indicators/inputs/outputs/percentages reached. It turned out that the development sector didn’t trust me anymore, and to make sure I was doing a good job, there was tons of bureaucracy.

I was tied up in red tape. 

When I went to that refugee camp, I threw a thick blanket in the back of my car. It was freezing in the desert at night. I never ever complained, I didn’t mind at all. 

But the computer, it sucked my energy. 

The development sector wanted to work with the business guy, but I was the guy who loved working with kids in refugee camps.

But this was only one part of my problem.

3. CEO vs Salma

If you are the CEO of a huge multinational cooperation and you want to make a donation, who would you trust: the business guy or the hands-on guy playing with kids? If you are a lost kid in a refugee camp, maybe like Salma, who would she trust?

Kids want the guy who teaches them capoeira, but the system wants the business guy. Both want to help, but there’s so much red tape disconnecting everybody.

And that’s another part of the problem.

"Kids want the guy who teaches them capoeira, but the system wants the business guy." -Tarek Alsaleh

Currently, around 0.4% of humanitarian aid goes to local NGOs on the ground – the ones that will stay after the plane is off to the next crisis. International aid money mostly ends up back in the organizations and countries that deliver the aid. Initiatives to change this situation include the Grand Bargain which aims to have at least 25% of the world’s humanitarian aid going to locals. This movement for change has been called “localization.”

0.4% ? This can’t fly, but why – given that there is so much good will!

Who decides what crisis is “sexy”? Who gives out most of the money and tells how money MUST be spent?

Currently it’s easier to give $100,000,000 to one large organization than $10,000 to 10,000 small organizations. In the business world, we call this a cartel. And it’s illegal.

In the development sector, each organization is competing with each other – for money, for visibility, for paying their employees’ salaries. Small organizations don’t stand a chance. What a lost opportunity! The ones who benefit are the middle men, the bureaucracy –

More red tape.


4. Reporting

I worked in Syria long before the war started. March 2011 changed everything for me. Right now, my daily work looks like this:

There are three checkpoints now, and a 20-minute journey from my house has turned into a 2-hour journey to the women’s safe house, where we are running another project. They see me and buzz me in. The corridor is full of mattresses. The women’s safe house has turned into a shelter for women and children from all over Syria.

I’m at my notebook, writing my report to get support – and there is a knock on my door (boom boom boom).

Two men, black sunglasses, huge mustaches: the mukhabrat,  the Syrian secret police. I am interrogated in a small room, I am served up a bottomless cup of sugary tea and questions about my brothel. How many prostitutes do I pimp out from my house in Damascus? – My house being my office, my brothel being my sports charity.

All of this is already stealing my time. 

Where do I write about the secret police? About the checkpoints? NO, I cannot take pictures. NO, I cannot ask for receipts. NO, I can’t get the gender break-down... but, I need to do all of this in order to get support for the projects.

Everyone is tangled up in red tape.

"The work we founded a decade ago now boasts a network presence in over 38 countries." -Tarek Alsaleh

Despite many times feeling like we were walking through a quagmire, our projects are now truly locally owned. The work we founded a decade ago now boasts a network presence in over 38 countries, 17 grassroots projects reaching out to vulnerable refugee youth, our model replicated across the Middle East and by the UN, including new NGOs set-up and owned by local people. Over 60,000 refugees have taken part in our programs.

But who knows about these amazing local projects? And how can we give them the marketing and publicity they need so that the world can support them directly?

5. Solutions

When I was finally forced out of Syria because of the war, I had to find ways to keep helping. I recently moved to Berlin to launch FrontlineAid, a not for profit business to drive change throughout the development sector using innovation, tech, and sustainable development thinking to realize change at the local level based on their needs. 

This is how we cut the red tape for local people: 

  • We live in a world that is both global and local. Technology has made it possible for us to connect with people working on the frontline, we follow them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We create real-time dashboards for them, find local mentors and cut red tape.
  • There are fancy apps out there – to collect real time data, even in the remotest areas. It’s GPS stamped and works on and offline. Basically, you only need a smart phone. Let’s not put great people in front of a computer, we need them spending their time doing good. Mobiles are there in refugee camps. If there is no connectivity, let’s put in a mobile tower, not a control tower.
  • Let’s build real relationships and shake hands instead of creating paperwork. Currently we spend our time managing the money instead of finding solutions. We need to build trust with local people until they tell us what they need and want. Then, we support them through our skills and our huge networks. They need to own the project, not our brand!



Tarek Alsaleh

Tarek Alsaleh founded Capoeira4Refugees in Syria in 2007, which runs sport, music, and play projects in prisons, with refugees, and in safe houses for vulnerable women and girls. Since then, he has continued to support over 60,000 refugees, across the Middle East and beyond. He also heads FrontlineAid.

This article is presented in collaboration with TwentyThirty

TwentyThirty is an online magazine presented by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we face and features inspiring Responsible Leaders who are working to solve them. Follow their work on Facebook.