Crises in a new world order: challenging the humanitarian project

Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on this kind of thing, introduces a big rethink of Oxfam’s humanitarian work When it comes to humanitarian crises, Oxfam specializes in the appropriate acronym of ‘WASH’.wash picIn 2011, hundreds of Oxfam staff delivered water and sanitation and other relief to millions of people afflicted by drought, floods or earthquakes. But in much of the world, a growing proportion of our humanitarian aid flows through local organisations, and the proportion is rising rapidly. In West Africa, it went from 1% to 30% of Oxfam GB’s humanitarian spend between 2003-4 and 2010-11. And other Oxfam affiliates have had a long history of supporting local humanitarian organisations. The expulsion of Oxfam GB and other INGOs from Darfur in 2009 is a well-worn story. Rather less so is Oxfam America’s continuing support for local organisations in Darfur, who are struggling with limited funds, political pressures and conflict. Many have talked recently of a ‘new business model’ for humanitarian action that values Southern capacity more than ever before. At the end of 2011, the President of MERCY Malaysia – a major INGO based in Kuala Lumpur– argued that ‘a greater role for Southern, national and local NGOs’ is the only way to respond to increasing disasters, and the realisation that climate change adaptation, preparedness and risk reduction are as ‘humanitarian’ as immediate relief. He might have added that traditional Western humanitarian donors, gripped by economic crisis, are not likely to continue to increase their funding to match a rising tide of humanitarian need. For all these reasons, the centre of humanitarian gravity is moving Southwards. That shift is well under way in many countries. In Bangladesh, the government provided 52 per cent of the response to 2009’s Cyclone Aila (with 37 per cent from INGOs and nine per cent from the UN). Oxfam entirely welcomes that shift, but recognises the challenges – ethical and practical – as it gradually becomes more of a ‘humanitarian broker’, supporting others more than doing aid itself. Its latest briefing paper – Crises in a new world order: challenging the humanitarian project – sets out both sides of that coin. Building up capacity is a long-term challenge.  It doesn’t free humanitarian agencies of the imperative to act fast when disasters strike in the meantime. In December, tropical storm Sendong killed more than 1000 people in the Philippines. Prompted by a previous disaster – typhoon Ketsana – two years earlier, the Philippines government had been doing a lot to improve its capacity. And Oxfam, in parallel, had seen itself increasingly as a supporter of local NGOs, rather than a direct provider. But when a storm strikes in an area where the local government is totally unprepared, as it did in December in Mindanao, Oxfam found itself having to do more than it planned. Equally, the traditional Western humanitarian’s tendency to assume that the local response will be slow and ineffective is usually wrong. National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies alone reached 45 million people in 2009. Evaluations of crises up to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake have regularly found that international donors and agencies have paid too little attention to local knowledge and action. As one of my colleagues in Oxfam America asked, “Why is the humanitarian community able to improve in some areas but not this?” Even in difficult circumstances local civil society can deliver results. In Ga’an Libah in Somaliland, a local organization supported pastoralists whose livelihoods were collapsing in the face of drastic capacity v willingness environmental degradation. With support from Oxfam, they helped the pastoralists construct stone terraces to minimize water runoff, and helped bring about the revival of grazing management and reforestation. The livestock grew heavier and more numerous, and the pastoralists used the new income to send more children to school. But working in effective states with significant capacity and a determination to help all their people is one thing. Working in fragile states or those that are seen as illegitimate or corrupt will always be fraught with difficulty. All of this varies case by case, but in general terms, the different models of states and international responses can be summarized by this table, which Oxfam developed in 2011 to help guide its humanitarian programming. None of this is easy. And as the new paper makes clear, Oxfam has not always found it easy either. But there is no turning back. The humanitarian world will never again be the Western-dominated thing it once was. INGOs will be as vital as ever. But their greatest responsibility will be to help build Southern capacity. And their greatest challenge will be to do that while responding to the new crises that don’t wait for that capacity to be built up. Here’s Ed talking about the paper: ]]>

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3 Responses to “Crises in a new world order: challenging the humanitarian project”
  1. It is true that, “even in difficult circumstances, local civil society can deliver results”. In Tearfund’s experience, it is local civil society actors who know best how to respond to a humanitarian crisis.
    Tearfund has always worked in partnership with local and national NGOs and FBOs in the South, because we recognise that local knowledge, expertise, and action, are invaluable and, in countries that are prone to hazards, disasters, and risks, we agree that the work before an emergency arises is just as important as the response in the immediate aftermath.
    Before a disaster, Tearfund works on an ongoing basis to build the capacity of partners, and the resilience of communities, through our disaster risk reduction work, preparing people ahead of time. For example, in Malawi, where recurring drought has devastating impact on food security, Tearfund’s partners work with communities to diversify crops, and conserve soil and water, building their resilience to future droughts without becoming food insecure. Or in Haiti where, post-earthquake, Tearfund’s partners work with communities to demonstrate earthquake-resistant building techniques.
    After a disaster, those same partners and communities are more resilient and better able to cope and respond, and Tearfund can channel funding to and through them, on the basis of those long-established relationships, and the fact that it’s the partners who know best how to spend the money.
    This is particularly important in slow-onset disasters, such as the East Africa food crisis, where it’s Tearfund’s partners who have been reaching out to the communities they are already working with, to provide emergency assistance. It’s also important in low profile crises, which never make it into the media reports, such as the floods in Mozambique two weeks ago, or the floods in Angola late last year, where it’s our partners who are there, on the ground, responding to the needs of the thousands of people affected.
    The increasing recognition that this is preferential to direct action by international agencies is therefore very welcome.

  2. Katherine Nightingale, Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Christian Aid

    It is great to see this report from Oxfam recognising the importance of an approach to humanitarian work that reinforces local resilience and capacity to respond.
    Whilst challenging for some in a sector in many ways still structured around an operational model, for Christian Aid and the local partners we work through in emergencies the momentum seems to be emerging to share and build on our experience and good practice of delivering only through local capacity. And to overcome the challenges that exist to this humanitarian model.
    It is also a great time to talk not just about the practical implications of the need to restructure the humanitarian approach but, as From poverty to power is aptly placed to do, to talk about the political implications of this reorientation.
    The change needed in the international humanitarian community is what the Tsunami Evaluation called “a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities.” (TEC,2007)
    As Christian Aid’s partners have been clear to tell us, whether in Haiti, India, Kenya, Philippines or Honduras, it is about ensuring an emergency response is empowering the disaster affected populations and the institutions supporting them, not weakening them.
    The UK Humanitarian Emergency Response Review recognised that “the paradigm is still viewing the affected population too much as what economist Julian LeGrand has called ‘pawns (extreme altruists). This approach costs. Local capacities are not utilised, the beneficiary is not involved enough and the quality of delivery is lower than it should be.”(HERR 2011) This needs to change.
    A humanitarian response that works through and reinforces local capacity, however, doesn’t just require a new, more facilitative role for International NGOs and UN agencies; it also means a lower profile and greater sharing of risk, burden and recognition. It means enabling local responders to tell emergency aid givers and public in the UK, US and elsewhere what they are doing to save and help their own communities. More recognition for local actors and governments alongside responsibility.
    What does this mean for humanitarian advocacy and reports like Crises in a New World Order? Maybe it means how we research, publish and promote these agendas also needs to change? How can we make sure that the humanitarian systems responds to those it is intending to serve? Perhaps only by enabling and supporting the voices and concerns of affected populations and the citizens of disaster affected states to hold their government and emergency response providers accountable for the safety and equitable provision of appropriate aid.
    The challenge for all humanitarian actors, north and south, big and small is in creating a humanitarian system that is responsive and reoriented towards working with local capacity, not just as local aid deliverers but as some of the ‘active citizens’ that From Poverty to Power recognises as the future for development,… disaster resilient development.
    Christian Aid is working now to share and strengthen good practice in working with local capacity; looking across its humanitarian work through local partners in over 80 emergencies in the last 5 years to draw out its experience of what it means to provide aid to international standards in different contexts and cultures in the partnership model.
    But more importantly it is working to ensure that the political reorientation of the humanitarian sector becomes a key part of development and humanitarian debates as we move into discussions for Rio+20 and the future of development goals.
    It is great to see Oxfam is a key ally in this work.

  3. I am quite confident that Oxfam can be more empowering to local NGOs in humanitarian settings. Where I am less confident is whether the Oxfam can be more empowering to the local population and their organisations.
    By using – also in this article – the term NGO for everything and the kitchen sink, a natural tendency for those forthcoming, highly educated, top – led local NGOs will stick, against the rowdy local civil society.
    By empowering elite-led NGOs, by definition the true representative and by consequence less politically correct organisations (unions, local red cross, churches) get sidelined.
    The road from poverty to power does not run through NGOs, but through genuine civil society.