Politics of Poverty

You’d better take us seriously

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Oxfam delegation in Istabul at the World Humanitarian Summit. (Photo: Oxfam America)

At the World Humanitarian Summit, local leaders told it like it is.

The World Humanitarian Summit is over, and we have taken a step forward.

For the first time ever, a broad swath of the humanitarian community worldwide sat down together to discuss the state of the world and the future of humanitarian response.  And for the first time ever, humanitarian leaders from disaster-affected countries—both government and civil society—had their say before an audience of more than 9,000 key international actors.

For more than 40 years, local humanitarian leaders have been trying to make themselves heard; at the Summit, their voices were loud and clear, and they were finally able to claim their space as the natural, logical leaders of humanitarian response. You had better take us seriously, they told us, or find something else to do.

By now everyone in the humanitarian community should be familiar with the arguments for local and national leadership: leaders in disaster-affected countries understand the local context, culture, languages, and terrain better than international actors ever will, and don’t deserve to be treated as hired contractors. They can move faster, and it costs them far less to launch a response.  Governments are responsible for protecting their people so need our support and collaboration. The current international system is inequitable, generously funding disasters that interest wealthy donors in wealthy nations and neglecting others. And it is overstretched. International aid providers need to limit direct interventions to the most catastrophic emergencies, and—with funds and capacity-building—support civil society and responsible governments to handle the rest.

One very positive sign that local leaders and their supporters are gaining ground was the launch of two initiatives at the Summit: the “Grand Bargain,” which calls for (among other things) aid organizations and donors to give at least 25% of their humanitarian funding as directly as possible to local and national responders by 2020, and the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR), which will help give local humanitarian organizations in the global south more resources and a bigger voice in the global community.

There was a sense in Istanbul that the tide has turned—and not a moment too soon.

Are we ready to make good on our promises? If so, we will be seeing power, resources, and skills shifting to local and national leaders—a process that will change the nature of partnerships with international actors.  We will see a system committed not only to saving lives but to upholding the dignity of the people who live in the most vulnerable regions of the world. We will see international actors develop a culture of listening.

There is near consensus on the principle of investing in local humanitarian leadership, so we should all feel empowered and compelled to act—to revise our strategies and ways of working, and quickly. It is the most pragmatic thing to do; just as importantly, it is the right thing to do. This is the way to move forward, because we all care about protecting human dignity. No more excuses, no more delays.


Oxfam has been supporting development of NEAR, and promoting local humanitarian leadership through programs, funding, and advocacy. Around the world, we are engaged in strengthening local capacity to lead emergency response. We have signed onto the Charter for Change, and committed to providing 30% of our humanitarian funding directly to local actors by 2018. And this year, we will help lawmakers introduce legislation that requires the US government to shift its funding and training priorities toward local actors.

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