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Local humanitarian leadership

The power of local action.

Wherever there is a humanitarian disaster unfolding around the world, there are people trying to ease the suffering. It begins with neighbors and neighboring communities. Soon, everyone from the mayor’s office to community leaders to local and national organizations, may spring into action—mobilizing urgent efforts to deliver lifesaving clean water, food, medicine, and shelter to people in need.

But in too many places in the world, the humanitarian leaders who are closest to the affected communities lack the resources they need, and countries must call for international aid.

While Oxfam deploys its own staff to respond to major disasters, we are increasingly focused on promoting local humanitarian leadership—on ensuring that grassroots aid providers have the technical skills, funds, and influence they need to take action in emergencies.

What is local humanitarian leadership?

Local humanitarian leadership is an approach to emergencies like floods, drought, disease, and conflict that recognizes and supports the leadership of aid providers that are as close as possible—geographically and culturally—to hard-hit communities.

Local and national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as responsible government agencies, are well positioned to respond to disasters and–between emergencies—to help communities reduce their vulnerability to future risks. They can reach people in time to save lives, and their grasp of the culture and context of the affected communities can engender the kind of trust that’s needed in times of crisis.

“Humanitarian response should be led by people who are close to the affected communities and really understand what’s going on,” says John Kitui, director of Oxfam in Kenya. “Our job is to support local NGOs to do what they do best.”

What is Oxfam doing to support local humanitarian leaders?

Whenever possible, we support from the sidelines, helping local and national groups strengthen their technical skills, create peer networks, boost their capacity to raise funds, improve their financial systems, and strengthen their gender and other internal policies. Sometimes we provide staff to accompany them during a humanitarian response. And we support their ongoing work to reduce disaster risks—to prepare for, mitigate, and, where possible, prevent future emergencies. We have set out to promote their leadership—to help them initiate and guide their own projects rather than simply execute the plans of big international organizations, and to help them thrive and succeed as organizations.

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Bangladeshi organization Shushilan was able to distribute clean water within a day of the powerful Cyclone Amphan in 2020. Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

We invest in local humanitarian leaders and organizations

The future of effective humanitarian action depends on strong, independent local aid providers around the world. That’s why we invest in NGOs—providing them not only with funds to carry out emergency response but with the support they need to step into leadership roles. While international organizations like Oxfam may always need to take action when catastrophic emergencies strike, countless lives depend on the ability of domestic organizations to respond to disasters.

“Oxfam taught us about how to provide access to water and sanitation in emergencies, and how to promote safe hygiene, and now we’re in charge of all that for a Rohingya [refugee] camp of more than 28,000 people,” says Mostafa Nuruzzaman, director of Shushilan, a local Bangladeshi organization that partners with Oxfam. “Oxfam also helped us improve our internal financial systems, which means now we are succeeding in getting funding for our programs from a variety of sources. Years ago, we had only a few agencies supporting our work; now we have more than 100.”

“Under the old model, an agency like Oxfam would have trained and funded us to do a set of limited tasks,” he says. “We could have been dependent on them indefinitely. Now, we are leaders in our country’s emergency response network. Oxfam has helped us become the organization we envisioned for ourselves.”

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“We had to fight to get aid providers to take women’s needs seriously,” says Magdelena Cortez of Fundación Maquilishuatl, whose organization’s mission includes promoting women’s leadership in El Salvador’s humanitarian system. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam America

We support women to lead in humanitarian response

In many countries that regularly experience severe emergencies, women’s organizations face challenges to full participation in humanitarian action. They lack fair opportunities to raise funds for their programs and to make their voices heard. Yet, women are disproportionately affected by disasters: In their traditional roles as caregivers, they must provide for children, elders, and the disabled in settings that may lack adequate food, water, shelter, and security.

So, in Oxfam’s work to support local humanitarian leadership, we look for ways to boost the leadership of organizations that bring women’s perspectives to this work.

“I am an advocate for women’s rights. I encourage women to organize and take power,” says Joy Lumawod of the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) in the Philippines, which partners with Oxfam. “They have the right to express themselves about what is good for their communities. At CDP, we strongly urge them to take part in decision-making in all areas of disaster management—and other areas of their lives.”

Razia Sultana, director of the Rights for Women Welfare Society, an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh, speaks at the UN Security Council, where she called for accountability for sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya women and girls, and for aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Razia Sultana, director of the Rights for Women Welfare Society, an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh, speaks at the UN Security Council, where she called for accountability for sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya women and girls, and for aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. UN Photo/Mark Garten

We advocate for equality

The current humanitarian system directs the lion’s share of disaster-relief funding to international bodies like the United Nations and international NGOs. Only a tiny portion—around three percent in 2020—flows directly to local and national responders.

This puts local groups at a disadvantage. They often have no choice but to carry out programs designed and managed by intermediaries that may have little connection to the local realities. At forums around the world, we help local humanitarian leaders advocate for fundamental change in the humanitarian system to challenge imbalances of power between local and international actors. And at the national level, we support local organizations in their advocacy for better—and better funded—disaster management.

Oxfam partner Soruda (Soroti Rural Development Agency) has provided people with special needs—including elders—who live in the Palabek refugee settlement of Uganda with cash grants and additional support to create gardens.
Oxfam partner Soruda (Soroti Rural Development Agency) has provided people with special needs—including elders—who live in the Palabek refugee settlement of Uganda with cash grants and additional support to create gardens. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam America

We study and learn to improve humanitarian response

What’s working and what isn’t in the localization of humanitarian response? What are the barriers to women’s leadership in all phases of humanitarian response? How is aid money flowing and what can Oxfam do to better align our programs with our local leadership principles and commitments?

To inform our actions and to help build a more effective and equitable humanitarian system, Oxfam is engaged in continuous research and learning. (Take a look at our research reports,Oxfam's Righting the Wrong report, and a 2020 summary of what we are learning about good practices and promising paths forward.)

“Research is at the heart of our work on local humanitarian leadership,” says Namalie Jayasinghe, Oxfam researcher on gender and women’s rights. “It provides us with an evidence base from which to test our assumptions and systematically incorporate the views of local partners into our programs and advocacy."

Resource links

Read more about Oxfam’s work on local humanitarian leadership, including an introduction, stories, and research.

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