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Who you gonna call? Partnerships in emergency response

Posted by Nigel Timmins Humanitarian Director

4th Nov 2013

Aid distributed by Oxfam's partner Abhigyan Disha, following floods in Bihar, India, 2007. Credit: Ian Bray/Oxfam GB
From local groups to international tech, Nigel Timmins, Oxfam GB's Deputy Humanitarian Director, emphasises the importance of making all kinds of partnerships work in humanitarian responses.

There's a lot of dogma in the humanitarian sector. Some feel that local partner organisations are the only legitimate actors in response to a crisis whilst others take the view that by definition, local capacity has been overwhelmed and so it's a no brainer that external actors are needed.

In my experience it is rarely so clearly defined. Different actors have different qualities to offer - such as the leader of a local church I met, who, during a cyclone, went out in his village and convinced people to come into the relative safety of the church building. Or the community leader who was helping victims of the Asian tsunami between the waves (there was more than one). I also met a human rights network who, after the earthquake in Haiti, mobilised their volunteers to help register beneficiaries and organise a cash distribution programme in record time. 

Yet these actors are not able to establish the water and sanitation systems needed to support a refugee camp of 50,000+ people. And for some organisations the challenge of massively scaling up to absorb much more funding - and then the pain of scaling down again - can have a detrimental impact on their long-term organisational health.

So what does the evidence say?

So what does the evidence say? What is the experience of those involved? A new report written by Ben Ramalingam, Bill Gray and Giorgia Cerruti, Missed Opportunities: The case for strengthening national and local partnership-based humanitarian responses, explores these questions and steers away from dogma to explore where local partner organisations are strongest. It uses ALNAP's State of the Humanitarian System Report 2012 to evaluate partner contribution and shows where local organisations represent a real opportunity to improve sector performance.

A localism agenda is not a panacea, but can really add value to the humanitarian outcomes for people affected by disaster.

What comes out is that a localism agenda is not a panacea, but can really add value to the humanitarian outcomes for people affected by disaster. There will probably always be a need for an international surge capacity but in addition to this, much greater, and more consistent, investment in local capacities for disaster management could make a significant contribution to improving the performance of the humanitarian sector.

Part of the challenge will be getting to the heart of partnership. Not subcontracting - working with someone just because they can do it more cheaply or just because someone is offering you money, but real partnership between organisations that can help each other see the nature of the problem differently. 

Let's continue to work with women's movements who can teach us about the reasons why women are disproportionately affected by disaster. Let's work with local faith communities, the local private sector, and national universities all of whom are different to us and form partnerships where we can learn from each other about the underlying causes of disaster and find innovative ways of delivering responses that capture the best of what each partner - local, national and international - has to offer.

Read more

Download the report at: www.oxfam.org.uk/missedopportunities

Blog post written by Nigel Timmins

Humanitarian Director

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Nigel Timmins