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What would I want in their shoes? 25 years of humanitarianism

Posted by Jane Cocking Previously the Oxfam GB Humanitarian Director

16th Aug 2013

Community disaster preparedness in Bangladesh. Credit: Kenny Rae/ Oxfam America
On World Humanitarian Day we pay tribute to our colleagues working in the field, but also to the people and communities that they work with. People who daily show enormous resilience in the face of extreme challenges. Oxfam's Humanitarian Director Jane Cocking explains more.

The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan happened at about ten past nine on a Saturday morning when people were doing ordinary Saturday morning things. When I spoke to people shortly after the earthquake, what they wanted more than anything else was to go back to five past nine, before the disaster struck. You can't do that for people but what you can do is be there, supporting them in very practical ways, whilst remaining empathetic and helping them to get back dignity and choice. That's what I would want in their shoes and that's what we try to do.

...what they wanted more than anything else was to go back to five past nine, before the disaster struck.

My career in humanitarian response began in Somalia during the devastating famine of the early 1990s. And it was here that I realised just how difficult life can be for some people, but also how well people can cope with things that no one should ever have to cope with. 

My experiences in Somalia left me with the profound belief that there is no greater injustice than the fact that there are people who do not have the basics to keep themselves and their families together. If this happened to me I would not want anyone to come and lecture me, but would want people to ask, "How can we help you to get back on your feet?" 

When Oxfam is at its best this is what we do: always trying to be accountable to people who have had their lives turned upside down by a disaster or a conflict. When we get it right it's a fabulous feeling to be a part of it. And that's why I do it.

Of course, we don't always get it right. Somalia was one of the first places where humanitarian agencies began to be seen as potentially part of the problem. Everybody was trying to do their best, but there was still a sense of 'agencies decide-people receive' and a certain amount of parachuting in with lots of money but no sensitivity to the local context. After Somalia, every agency in the world felt that we should have handled things differently. Fortunately, we learnt from the situation and much has changed since. 

Recently I visited Jordan and Lebanon and met people who had fled Syria. I felt that there were many similarities with their experiences and those of the people I met in the Balkans in the 1990s. But our approach has changed.  Today, for example, we would not try to set up a food distribution system for people living in an abandoned supermarket or school; instead we get cash to them so they can choose what to buy for themselves. And that is a much more empowering way of doing things. 

Oxfam water tanks at Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

A colleague of mine says that a humanitarian response will always be an inadequate solution to a problem that should never happen. It will always be inadequate because of the nature of a crisis. You can never simply make the war stop and let everybody go home, you're always faced with dilemmas, which are the choice of two bad options-which is the least worst? But we are learning and these days the automatic response is to ask "What do the local communities think?" "What do they want?" "Who's there already and how can we support them?" 

A good illustration of how we work with local NGOs came after the Pakistan floods in 2010. Following a devastating flash flood, a local agency in the Swat valley was distributing the very small amount of stock they had, that Oxfam had supported them to buy in the first place. 

Talking to them a week later I asked if they had been worried that it would all run out; they said no, they knew Oxfam would help them to replace it. I remember being so impressed by the level of trust this showed: the confidence in that relationship. It took three days for anyone from Islamabad (where Oxfam was) to get there and that would have been too late. You've got to find ways of supporting people in those first hours and that's what we do now.

Increasingly we are also working with communities and our development colleagues to improve long term disaster preparedness and resilience. Resilience may be a buzzword, but it's one that works

For example, in Northern Kenya we are working with pastoralist communities in three different ways. We are supporting them through cash programming, whilst also working with the government to improve social welfare provision, and we're also helping them to plan long term as their traditional livelihoods are threatened by climate change and economic pressures.

Doing those three things all at the same time with is absolutely crucial. In bad years you might have to step back from some of the long term work because people's priorities change. But the fact that we have been doing it means that any humanitarian response will be that much more sensitive: that's really important and that's what we're aiming for.

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Blog post written by Jane Cocking

Previously the Oxfam GB Humanitarian Director

More by Jane Cocking

Jane Cocking