Central America: Building local capacity

In El Salvador, the rains of October of 2011 were catastrophic: in the course of nine days, a slow-moving tropical depression dropped five feet of rain and wreaked havoc across the country. But the emergency response was swift and effective—the culmination of years of advocacy and training.

Our objective

In humanitarian terms, Oxfam goal is to save lives. But—beyond that—our aim is to strengthen the capacity of countries around the world to respond to disasters effectively.

Evaluative approach

Oxfam commissioned an independent evaluation of our 2011 flood response in El Salvador.

What did we learn?

Hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes are inevitable in El Salvador, but their most dreaded outcomes—death, disease, and deeper poverty—are not. Acting on these principles, for more than ten years Oxfam America has invested in the capacity of communities, local agencies, and government authorities in El Salvador to reduce the impact of disasters—particularly on the poor.

As a result, when a storm struck in October 2011, the country’s readiness was unprecedented. The civil-protection system kicked into gear, authorizing community leaders to evacuate their towns and villages. Community volunteers trained by Oxfam partners took action to ensure the safety and health of their neighbors. And the water, sanitation, and hygiene team reached thousands of people with aid before the government had even declared a national emergency.

In the historic Hurricane Mitch of 1998, 239 people died. In the storm of 2011, which dropped nearly twice the rainfall of Mitch, fewer than 40 people lost their lives.

While swift evacuations and clean water save lives and protect health, they won’t change the fact that poverty has placed countless Salvadorans in harm’s way. They won’t address imbalances of power and wealth. But our approach to humanitarian work is about change from the grassroots up and we see evidence of these changes taking root. When the 2011 flood struck the village of La Pelota, not only did residents evacuate safely, they conveyed a strong message to local authorities who failed to deliver appropriate aid (i.e., the water provided was unfit to drink): they sent it back.