Going local without localization: Power and humanitarian response in the Syrian war

Rana B. Khoury, Emily K.M. Scott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


International aid organizations and donors have committed to localize aid by empowering local actors to deliver and lead in humanitarian response. While international actors do often rely on local actors for aid delivery, their progress on shifting authority falls short. Scholars suggest that while localizing aid may be desirable, the organizational imperatives of international actors and aid's colonial past and present make it difficult at best. Can localization efforts produce locally led humanitarian response? Adopting a power framework, we argue that localization reinforces and reproduces international power; through institutional processes, localization efforts by international actors allocate capacity to, and constitute local actors as, humanitarians that are more or less capable, funded, and involved in responding to crises in the latter's own countries. This article interprets aid efforts during the Syria War. In this crucial case, we might expect localization to be “easy” due to the dependence of international actors on local actors because of security concerns and constraints on international access. We draw on fine-grained qualitative data collected through immersive observation and 250 interviews with Syrian and international aid workers in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as descriptive analysis of quantitative data. We reveal the ways Syrians were constituted as frontline responders, recipients of funds or trainings, risk-takers, gateways to access, and tokenistic representatives of the crisis. Our research shows that while the response seemed to “go local” by relying on the labor and risk-taking of Syrians to implement relief, it did not transfer authority to Syrian actors. Findings contribute to current debates in global development and humanitarian scholarship about who holds power within the global aid architecture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106460
JournalWorld Development
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • Humanitarianism
  • Institutions
  • Localization
  • Participation
  • Power
  • Syria

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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