Politics of Poverty

To save more lives in emergencies, let locals lead

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Members of the Santa Eduviges local civil-protection committee discuss preparedness plans near the widening ravine that threatens their community. In the storm of November 2009, the losses were heavy: eight houses were buried or badly damaged by landslides around the nearby ravine. It was thanks to the quick action of the local civil-protection committee - trained and equipped by Oxfam partner Comandos de Salvamento - that no one died. Community committee member Paula DePerla said: “We didn’t expect this emergency. But we were prepared...One of the [Commandos] workshops highlighted the need for a risk map of the community, so our committee created one. During the emergency, the map guided us to the homes that were most vulnerable and showed us evacuation routes. Some of the ways were blocked, but the map helped us find alternative routes. Can preparedness save lives? Yes. We were not waiting for city hall to tell us to do this, do that. We just did it.”€ Photo: Claudia Barrientos/ Oxfam America

In disaster assistance, local actors are frequently sidelined and undervalued – but they are the true experts. If we’re interested in saving lives, we need to invest more in local actors.

Scott Paul is a senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam America. The piece was co-written by Michelle Strucke, aid effectiveness policy advisor at Oxfam America.

The days immediately following Hurricane Sandy in November, 2012 are days I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. In the week that followed, I joined a local group to assist communities in Staten Island, Coney Island, and the Rockaways, some of New York City’s hardest hit areas. It was a makeshift operation to say the least. Our operating hub was a church. We had little if any formal structure and no budget outside what we, the volunteers, were willing to pay. Some people, like myself, volunteered a few days and evenings; others spent eighteen hours a day at the church for weeks on end. The city government worked closely with groups like ours to coordinate volunteers.

When help arrived in the form of assistance from FEMA days after the hurricane struck, it was met with a combination of indifference and resentment. It seemed obvious that local groups like ours were the leaders of the response. Why were we suddenly being worked around, my colleagues and I wondered? Weren’t we the ones getting things done? Why wouldn’t they follow our lead and work with us, the people who knew best the neighbors and neighborhoods we were trying to help?

For people in developing countries, the dissonance between local actors and outsiders can be even more pronounced than what I experienced in New York City. In the onset of an emergency, those first few minutes and hours matter. They determine whether a person receives lifesaving assistance or is left behind. Unfortunately, when disasters strike, the big money rarely flows to governments and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are saving lives in their own communities. More often than not, the lion’s share of the money goes to international actors, such as the United Nations and international NGOs like Oxfam.   And when the immediate response to the disaster is over, the money dries up – often leaving communities as vulnerable and disempowered as they were before. This system has saved countless lives – but who knows how many more could have been saved if local leaders were empowered to help their communities prepare for natural hazards and respond in the face of disaster.

As the World Humanitarian Summit approaches, a single, loud refrain has emerged from the three years of consultations in the lead up: Local people are being sidelined. Their expertise is devalued, the critical role they play is undermined, and the structures supporting international humanitarian assistance are leaving them out.

Oxfam has heard this message, and we are responding. By 2019, our humanitarian partners will be able to respond on their own to small and medium-sized disasters affecting fewer than 200,000 people.  Building this capacity isn’t just a nice thing to do. It is an essential way to defend the rights of people in crisis and to uphold their dignity. Our job is to offer assistance and build capacity when it is appropriate, requested, and needed on the terms dictated by affected people themselves. We understand that people in crisis are already resourceful, and already navigate complicated realities we have not contemplated. And we recognize that the greatest success we can achieve is to no longer be needed.

For donor governments, what’s needed is a development approach to disasters, particularly where governments are demonstrating a willingness and ability to lead. A development approach would put governments in charge of preparing for and responding to disasters, with civil society playing a critical role implementing governments’ plans and holding them accountable for their performance. USAID currently funds disaster risk reduction, but it does so with humanitarian funding on a project-by-project basis according to need and vulnerability. USAID should supplement this spending with a significant investment of development funding in a small number of partner countries. Through this approach, USAID could help build these countries’ capacity to lead their own disaster preparedness and response efforts, ending their chronic dependence on humanitarian assistance for recurring disasters that hit year after year, and most importantly, saving more lives.

This approach would also continue USAID’s positive trend of supporting local organizations directly, avoiding the problems I saw during Hurricane Sandy by ensuring that the people closest to their communities are the ones making decisions that impact them. It would also be a step toward answering the calls heard around the world as the World Humanitarian Summit nears.

It’s time to think smarter about disaster assistance. Investing in local actors does just that.

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