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Local capacity in humanitarian response: Vision or mirage?

The absence of empowered local participation in emergency response has been recognized by most actors in the humanitarian sector. It has been documented in the evaluations of major responses from the African Great Lakes wars in the ‘90s to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 – and it will undoubtedly be a key finding when the humanitarian sector reviews its earthquake response in Haiti.

In theory and in spirit, there has been some progress in promoting local participation and empowerment in recent years, from the principles and standards outlined in the Sphere Project and the Red Cross Code of Conduct to the mechanisms and guidelines laid out by the Humanitarian Accountability Project. But if the framework is in place for bringing about a real transfer of power to local populations in humanitarian emergencies, why is it not taking place?

In the current humanitarian system, the dominant principle is action-reaction. A crisis happens, money is donated, and those funds are expected to produce immediate results – tangible results that donors sense are meeting the needs on the ground. It is a fast-paced sequence that provides little room for building on local capacity or even for listening carefully to local voices.

Two major changes to this model are needed: the expansion of the moral and financial commitment from reactive to preventive-reactive, and a shift in power from external to local actors. This paper will analyze the ways in which the current system interferes with disaster-affected communities taking charge of their own recovery; it will also share examples of local organizations, supported by Oxfam America and others, which have succeeded in leading responses to humanitarian crises.

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