The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Local capacity and humanitarian aid in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan

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A ‘new business model’ for humanitarian action in the Philippines must value Southern civil society more than ever before.

Ed Cairns, Senior Policy Advisor, leads Oxfam Great Britian’s humanitarian advocacy research. This post originally appeared on Insight on Conflict’s blog and we are re-posting it here in light of the ongoing international response to Typhoon Haiyan.

Filipino air force personnel prepare to load sacks of relief goods at the airport in the devastated city of Tacloban, in Leyte province. Current estimates are that the typhoon has affected 9.68 million people, or about two million families. Photo by EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan.
Filipino air force personnel prepare to load sacks of relief goods at the airport in the devastated city of Tacloban, in Leyte province. Current estimates are that the typhoon has affected 9.68 million people, or about two million families. Photo by EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan.

Most humanitarian aid is not provided by the big name UN agencies or international charities – but by local communities, neighbors and civil society. They are first with relief during when the typhoon hits the Philippines, when an earthquake struck Haiti, when floods struck Pakistan. They are there when a cyclone hits Somalia, where organizations like SAACID are at the heart of disaster response.

International humanitarian aid saves millions of lives. But it also frequently sidelines the activism of local civil society. In 2010, the international response to Haiti’s earthquake was enormous. But when it was evaluated, it revealed that Western donors had overlooked local government and civil society, as well as the views of affected Haitians themselves. Similarly, every evaluation of major crises over the last ten years has said much the same thing. As a couple of my colleagues in Oxfam America lamented: Why is the humanitarian community able to improve in some areas – but not this?

This was a question that dominated my mind when I wrote Oxfam’s paper last year on making humanitarian aid more effective – and more local, “Crises in a New World Order: Challenging the Humanitarian Project.” Another report from Christian Aid entitled, “Building on the Future of Humanitarian Aid: Local Capacity and Partnerships in Emergency Assistance,” came to similar conclusions.

To be fair, international humanitarian aid has become more and more effective over the last few years. It needs to – because the increase in weather-related disasters, and those exposed to them, means that the demand for humanitarian aid is likely to continue to rise. In 2010, for example, more than 69 million people were exposed to floods. In the next few decades, that number is projected to grow substantially.

With rising demand – and limited aid budgets – this is exactly the time to make sure that every donor dollar is used as effectively as possible. That does not mean any less support for the most effective international agencies, like the International Committee of the Red Cross. But it does mean more focus on building, and respecting, the capacity of local civil society – as well as local authorities. The traditional Western humanitarian perspective has been too quick to assume that the local response will be slow and ineffective. That view is usually wrong. 

In Oxfam, the proportion of humanitarian aid flowing through local organizations is rising rapidly. In West Africa – facing 2012’s most under-reported food crisis – it went from 1% to 30% between 2003-4 and 2010-11.

Many talk of a ‘new business model’ for humanitarian action that values Southern civil society more than ever before. At the end of 2011, the president of MERCY Malaysia argued that ‘a greater role for Southern, national and local NGOs’ is the only way to respond to increasing disasters, and the realization that climate change adaptation, preparedness and risk reduction are as ‘humanitarian’ as immediate relief.

He’s right. The center of humanitarian gravity is moving Southwards. For international agencies like Oxfam, that means evolving towards being more of a ‘humanitarian broker’ – supporting the efforts of others – because, in the words of a colleague, we don’t always need to be the ones saving lives ourselves.

Beneath the headlines, this is already happening, even in the most difficult circumstances. The expulsion of Oxfam Great Britain and other international agencies from Darfur in 2009 is a well-worn story. Rather less so is Oxfam’s continuing support for local organizations in Darfur, struggling with limited funds, political pressures, and conflict.

The humanitarian capacity of local civil society is enormously varied of course. Helping to build it is a long-term challenge. Doing that, and responding to today’s crises at the same time, is not easy. But there is no turning back. The humanitarian world will never again be the Western-dominated sector it once was. International agencies will be as vital as ever. But their – our – greatest responsibility will be to help build that local capacity.

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