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Local humanitarian agencies: still short-changed by the world’s humanitarian donors

Posted by Ed Cairns Senior Policy Adviser, Research

27th Jul 2015

Indramaya Shrestha (63) searches for belongings in the remains of the collapsed building in which she lived with her brother-in-law and his family when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck Nepal, killing her brother-in-law and leaving the family homeless. Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Today we publish a new report, Turning the Humanitarian System on its Head, which argues that to remain effective the humanitarian system must change. Here Ed Cairns, Oxfam's senior policy adviser on humanitarian affairs, reflects on the report's findings and what the future holds for humanitarian action. 

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged on From Poverty to Power that Oxfam is in overdrive on new humanitarian reports. That day we published For Human Dignity on the challenges next year's World Humanitarian Summit must deliver on. Today two of my colleagues in Oxfam America pick up on one of those challenges - to set out practical new ways to support local humanitarian action.

...the new 'default' would be locally led humanitarian actionMarc Cohen and Tara Gingerich have given their new paper a visionary title: Turning the Humanitarian System on its Head. What do they mean? They mean building a system that focuses 'on national government leadership, supported and held accountable by civil society, with resilient communities at its core, and international actors standing by to assist whenever necessary.'

This is not to do away with UN agencies, international NGOs and the world's traditional donors at all, but rather to put the emphasis on how they can support local leadership of humanitarian action, whenever that is possible.

Too often the call for more local humanitarian leadership can be reduced to something of a slogan that local is good and international bad. But Cohen and Gingerich astutely avoid that, and build on recent research such as the Missed Opportunities report by Christian Aid, Oxfam and others that looked at the evidence on how a more local approach added real value, but is often not easy.

Cohen and Gingerich do not claim that local humanitarian leadership is a panacea, nor do they belittle what international humanitarian agencies must continue to do. In Cohen and Gingerich's vision, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator would still have a job. Western-based humanitarian folk like, er, me would still have jobs too. But the new 'default' would be locally led humanitarian action, in which international agencies put more of their emphasis on supporting local agencies - not least supporting local civil society to hold their own national governments to account....less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance went directly to local actors between 2007 and 2013

Another word for that might be 'subsidiarity', which the Irish Humanitarian Summit talked about earlier this month. That idea seems to combine two things which are demonstrably true. One: that national, regional and international humanitarian agencies all have vital roles to play. And two: that wherever possible, they should all support the efforts of affected people themselves to cope and recover from humanitarian crises.

There are some great facts sprinkled throughout their report, but the most shocking is that - despite everything above - less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance went directly to national and local actors in crisis-affected countries between 2007 and 2013. Less than 2 percent! That's not very much.

The authors go on to reveal that the percentage of direct funding to local NGOs specifically appears to have actually gone down in 2014.

Cohen and Gingerich don't claim that there's one simple solution. They point to the need for far more balanced and genuine partnerships between donors and local NGOs, and for greater humanitarian funding overall. They specifically recommend an international mandatory assessment for humanitarian assistance, so that donor governments can't simply focus on the emergencies, issues, and large international partners that they want.International humanitarian agencies should not beat themselves up - quite the opposite.

Voluntary contributions to humanitarian appeals will remain vital, not least to respond to unforeseen disasters such as Ebola, or Nepal's devastating earthquake. But the authors suggest that donor governments should do more; they should also contribute humanitarian funding based on some form of international assessments, a percentage of which could be dedicated to developing local capacity. Indeed, Oxfam has put a figure on that kind of ambition. Governments and other humanitarian donors, it has said, should dedicate, by 2020, at least 10 percent of their global humanitarian funding to strengthen the capacity of local and national NGOs to lead humanitarian action.

International humanitarian agencies should not beat themselves up - quite the opposite. Oxfam alone helped more than 8 million people in 2014. And the relatively straightforward path to build local humanitarian capacity in countries with benign governments facing small and medium-sized disasters does not look so straightforward in vicious, protracted conflicts. But the lesson of one crisis after another - from the tsunami to Haiti, to typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines - is that greater support for local leadership, wherever possible, would make aid more effective, responsive and accountable. Cohen and Gingerich's new report not only reminds us of that, but reveals some shocking figures of how far donors still have to go, and how, with the will, they could change.

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Photo: Indramaya Shrestha (63) searches for belongings in the remains of the collapsed building in which she lived with her brother-in-law and his family when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck Nepal, killing her brother-in-law and leaving the family homeless. Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Blog post written by Ed Cairns

Senior Policy Adviser, Research

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Ed Cairns