Local capacity and humanitarian aid

June 13 2012: Ed Cairns, Senior Policy Adviser for Oxfam GB, argues for a greater role for local organisations in humanitarian aid. As the humanitarian aid sector becomes less dominated by western organisations, their focus should shift toward supporting, and building the capacity of, local organisations.

(© Oxfam Novib)

Most humanitarian aid is not provided by the big name UN agencies or international charities – but by local communities, neighbours and civil society.
Most humanitarian aid is not provided by the big name UN agencies or international charities – but by local communities, neighbours and civil society. Last year, they were once again first with relief when floods struck Pakistan, just as they had been in 2010 when aid agencies struggled to reach the 14 million in need of assistance. Just as they are in Somalia – where organisations like SAACID that provides the water these Somali women are collecting, have been at the heart of the famine 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 new paper on making humanitarian aid more effective – and more local, Crises in a New World Order, which we published a few weeks ago.

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.

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.
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.

That’s the message of another new report as well (pdf), this time from Christian Aid. While in Oxfam GB, the proportion of humanitarian aid flowing through local organisations is rising rapidly. In West Africa – facing 2012’s most underreported 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 realisation that climate change adaptation, preparedness and risk reduction are as ‘humanitarian’ as immediate relief.

He’s right. The centre 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.

International agencies will be as vital as ever. But their – our – greatest responsibility will be to help build that local capacity.
Beneath the headlines, this is already happening, even in the most difficult circumstances. The expulsion of Oxfam GB and other international agencies from Darfur in 2009 is a well-worn story. Rather less so is Oxfam’s continuing support for local organisations 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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Comments

There are 3 comments Show comments

Eric Ngang on June 18, 2012

Great article! There is need for a paradigm shift from capacity buidling to capitalise and value the resourcefullness of receiving countries in the global south.

Jennifer Lentfer on June 25, 2012

Couldn’t agree more. The aid agency of the future focuses on building its own skills to accompany and support local groups, community leaders, and grassroots initiatives, rather than overpower or co-opt them. The aid agency of the future is able to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking local implementing “partners” to change. The aid agency of the future is lowering the “glass ceiling” for local groups to participate in decision-making about aid resources, is bucking the paradigm of development without local sovereignty, and is demonstrably serious about downward accountability.

Jim Phillips on August 14, 2012

Can I have YOUR Email please.

We have a healing support message for Peace Building Charities…will send details

thank you
Jim

pp Community 2000 Trust ()Reg 1069359

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