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Crises in a new world order: challenging the humanitarian project

Posted by Ed Cairns Senior Policy Adviser, Research

7th Feb 2012

Evacuation in Bangladesh following Cyclone Aila

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 specialises in the appropriate acronym of 'WASH' (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Promotion ).

In 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 this 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% of the response to 2009's cyclone Aila (with 37% from INGOs and 9% 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.

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. 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.

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. Yet evaluations of crises up to Haiti's 2010 earthquake regularly report how 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 environmental degradation. With support from Oxfam, they helped the pastoralists construct stone terraces to minimise 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 summarised by this table, which Oxfam developed in 2011 to help guide its humanitarian programming.

Illustration of international response matched to national capacity

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 inevitable tide of new crises that simply won't wait for that capacity to be built up.


See Ed talking about the need to rethink humanitarianism here:

Blog post written by Ed Cairns

Senior Policy Adviser, Research

More by Ed Cairns

Ed Cairns