Local humanitarians taking charge

Climate change and armed conflict are overwhelming the ability of the international community to respond to disasters. But if they can get the resources and training they need to do their jobs, local organizations and governments are best-placed to save lives and ease suffering. Just ask Sidi Jaquité, Karen Ramírez, and Rosa Rivero what’s possible when local people put their minds and hearts into working with their neighbors. Oxfam is helping lead global efforts to shift power and funds into the hands of the responders who need them most.

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From earthquakes to famines to wars, emergencies have a common thread: neighbors helping neighbors. Local people may not have helicopters or budgets or food enough for everyone, but you can be sure they are doing what they can to save lives and ease the suffering of people hit hard by disasters. Likewise, local and national organizations of all stripes lend a hand when major emergencies strike in their country. And if a nation’s government takes its responsibilities seriously, everyone from the local mayors to the president will be working overtime to handle a disaster.

The world doesn’t hear much about these local and national heroes, which means they rarely get the resources they need to do their jobs. As Oxfam’s Carlos Mejia explains in the video below, Oxfam is challenging the model of humanitarianism that favors international over national and local interventions, and we are leading efforts around the world to shift power, skills, and funds into the hands of the responders who need it most: those whose countries and communities lie in harm’s way.


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Sidi Jaquité

Guinea-Bissau is a poor nation in West Africa where basics like health care, clean drinking water, and electricity are luxuries, and where, when night falls, even the capital city goes dark. This is the home of Sidi Jaquité, the director of the National Association for Local Development (NADEL), an Oxfam partner. He has a warm smile and easy humor that belie the grueling hours he works—and the life-and-death issues he grapples with every day.

Such as deadly diseases. Cholera, which used to erupt in Guinea-Bissau every year, is so infectious it can sweep through unwary communities with lightning speed. Back in 2005, more than 25,000 people were infected. But in 2010, Jaquité and his team began recruiting outreach workers from vulnerable communities around the country to share information about prevention, and to install hand-washing stations and latrines. NADEL provided a crucial grassroots link to a response that included the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the UN, and the results were dramatic: Since 2013 there hasn’t been a single case of cholera in the country.

But for Jaquité, there was no time to rest. In March 2014, a case of Ebola was reported in the neighboring country of Guinea, and before long, West Africa was in the grip of a full-blown epidemic. Guinea-Bissau, whose land and maritime borders are impossible to control and whose health system is fragile, was vulnerable in every way. NADEL’s work on cholera gave the country a head start on Ebola: At-risk communities had already improved their hygiene practices. Soon, Jaquité’s workers had spread the word on how to detect and contain a case of Ebola, and they were monitoring the health of people arriving at key border checkpoints.

“We named our project <em>‘no tadja Ebola,’</em> which means ‘we the community are the wall that protects us against Ebola.’”

Sidi Jaquité
Director of the National Association for Local Development (NADEL)

Ebola has taken the lives of more than 11,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, but so far, Guinea-Bissau has been spared. It’s not only that no infected people have crossed into the country, which is remarkable in itself. It’s that by communicating both knowledge and reassurance, Jaquité and his team have eased the terror that once gripped communities on the frontlines of this emergency.

Traveling with Jaquité through the towns and villages of Guinea-Bissau, you get the feeling that just about everyone knows him, and before long, you understand why: if he can help you out of a hard place, he will do it gladly, whether your car is stuck in mud or your country is in the throes of a public health emergency.

Dr. Januario Biague, director of the Tombali regional hospital, welcomes Jaquité into his office like an old and dear friend. “Sidi is a worker,” he says, “and he thinks that the problems of others are his problems. Even the sick people in the hospital he thinks of as his problem. For example, when we didn’t have disinfection supplies, [NADEL] provided them. When latrines for pregnant women were blocked, NADEL took care of them. If the hospital is clean now, it’s thanks to NADEL. Now, the communities understand how to prevent Ebola and cholera, and [they know] the importance of using latrines. This is the result of NADEL’s work. No matter what the difficulty, NADEL is ready to help.”

NADEL has always worked hand in hand with the government. Thanks to its strong performance on cholera and Ebola, the group has been formally incorporated into the national system of epidemic surveillance—charged with responsibility for the vulnerable region of Tombali.

Jaquité is quick to point out the importance of Oxfam’s support.

“Oxfam has provided NADEL with trainings in communications and advocacy, monitoring and evaluation, writing proposals and reports, and gathering data,” he says. “An Oxfam staff member was deployed for a year to help us learn to build safe wells and improve chlorination of water at the community level. Oxfam helped us purchase and renovate our office, and [helped us] buy the trucks we need to reach the villages. When an IOM (International Organization for Migration) representative visited our office and saw our financial systems and the way we work, he said, ‘Now, this is an organization,’ and he was happy to fund our programs. This is thanks to Oxfam.”

But it is Jaquité himself who is at the heart of NADEL’s success. From remote villages to government offices in the capital city, people love and believe in him, and it is easy to see why. Their suffering is his suffering, and his victories are theirs.

Karen Ramírez

Karen Ramírez is a firebrand of the best sort. She’s passionate about justice, and though she never seeks center stage, the moment she’s needed she steps up without complaint—and rocks the house. She lives in El Salvador—a country plagued with natural hazards and violent crime, and haunted by a 12-year civil war—but the pain of the past and present just seems to remind her that giving up on her people is not an option.

Ramírez is the project manager for Oxfam partner PRO-VIDA and a strong voice for community access to clean drinking water. And for more than a decade, she’s also been pushing to strengthen El Salvador’s homegrown capacity for managing disasters, helping lead a multiyear process to ensure that Salvadorans—from government officials to national organizations to community leaders—have all the knowledge and technical expertise they need to deliver clean water and safe sanitation facilities in times of emergency, without having to rely on international aid providers for anything but modest funds. The WASH team, as it’s called (WASH is an acronym for water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion), proved its mettle back in 2012, when nearly 60 inches of rain fell over the course of nine days. Before the government had even declared a national emergency, the team had delivered aid to thousands of people displaced by the floods.

Now, Ramírez’s work to improve El Salvador’s capacity to manage emergencies is going deeper. PRO-VIDA and Oxfam have helped form a new government-led organization—known as the WASH Subcommission—that represents all the key WASH providers in El Salvador, including the UN, the government, and national and international NGOs. Members are planning emergency aid together as never before—to the point where the UN, while still a participant, is handing over its traditional role as emergency response coordinator to this group.

“In the past, we saw a lot of individual efforts,” says Arnoldo Cruz, head of El Salvador’s Environmental Health Directorate and coordinator of the Subcommission. “Now, we are building a different model.” It’s one where the government can move the levers of the national civil protection system; where local NGOs, which are often more nimble and flexible than the authorities, can move fast to deliver aid; where international NGOs can provide funding and expertise to support the local and national leadership; and where all are pulling together as one.

Ramírez is at the center of it all.

“Karen is a woman of unbelievable energy,” says environmental rights advocate Yanira Cortez Estévez. “She is tireless, because she is passionate about what she is doing.”

And as with strong leaders everywhere, her spirit is infectious.

“Karen inspires people and challenges them,” says friend and colleague Xenia Marroquin. “She makes us want to do more.”

Rosa Rivero

Rosa Rivero, one of the founders of Oxfam partner CEPRODA MINGA, lives and works in Peru’s northern region of Lambayeque. Here, the remains of ancient civilizations dot the landscape—which may be one reason she tends to take the long view.

“The communities we work with base their lives on values that date back to ancestral times,” she says, including collective decision-making and reciprocity. “I’ll help you build your house, and you’ll help me when I need it later.” Deeply held beliefs and values like these, she feels, hold the key to effective and sustainable disaster management. Given the right tools and information, she believes, local people are well positioned to protect themselves.

Experience suggests she is right.

The flood-prone village of Las Juntas sits on the banks of the La Leche river. In a dry year, the river is just a quiet stream—tame, by all appearances. But its nickname—el río loco[cda1] , or crazy river—tells a story. When the river rises, it’s fast and furious, and Las Juntas has been inundated countless times.

In 2009, Rivero set out to test an idea: Might an investment—even a small one—in local leadership and readiness make a difference? She enlisted help from regional authorities to accompany her in a process that began with carefully listening to the needs and priorities of the local residents. She was not surprised to learn that for decades, community members had been living with huge risks, but that there was always a mitigating factor: when faced with danger, people here don’t just run for their lives—they look out for one another to be sure everyone from pregnant women to children to the elderly makes it to safety. Working closely with local residents, Rivero and the civil defense authorities developed a flood early warning system, and trained a community-based committee focused on disaster preparedness and response.

And it worked.

Miguel Siesquen, the government’s civil defense leader in the nearby town of Illimo, describes his role now: “If there’s a flood danger, we receive information from higher in the river basin and can warn the community leaders about it about five hours ahead of time. A scale on a bridge across the river enables more local monitoring. If people need to evacuate, they have a chance to gather at an agreed meeting point, where we can pick them up and take them to a shelter.”

Local committee members, for their part, have received training and equipment—including a loudspeaker—that have helped them launch evacuations, rescues, and cleanup, and they now lead disaster simulations to be sure townspeople are always ready for the worst.

Andres Gonzales is the president of the committee. “When the siren goes off, the river is about to flood,” he says. “We are already prepared. We just have to leave.”

“People feel safer now,” adds José Llovera Riojas, who manages the siren. “They feel calm because we are communicating with each other.”

The ideas behind Rivero’s initiative are simple. Simple enough to work. Building on her success, there are now more than 200 vulnerable communities in the Lambayeque region that have developed their own emergency committees.

Peru’s national system of civil defense has taken note and begun incorporating these grassroots humanitarians into their plans. “Five years ago, the government was skeptical about integrating local committees,” says Oxfam humanitarian coordinator Elizabeth Cano. “Now, they welcome and promote them.”

There is a tone and principle that infuse Rivero’s work and relationships: respect. In particular, respect for poor communities that the world is quick to overlook and underestimate. Rivero sees community members—however poor or vulnerable—as masters of their own fate, and as the key players when it comes to emergency response. Where the world sees hardscrabble farmers and traders who need our help, she sees brave survivors with deep knowledge of their environment and powerful connections to their communities—people, in other words, who have a lot to teach the rest of us.

“Rosa is very visionary, very hard-working,” says Cano. “But I think her greatest strength is that she listens carefully—not only to what people want and need but also to what they have to offer.”

Having their backs

Jaquité, Ramírez, and Rivero are local heroes, but they are not alone. Wherever Oxfam works, we have the pleasure and the honor of working side by side with people who are dedicated to their communities and willing to do whatever it takes to protect their lives and their rights. They are part of an international movement to localize aid—a movement fueled both by a growing understanding that local actors are making huge contributions, and by the reality that climate change and armed conflict are overwhelming the ability of international actors to respond to crises. In December of last year, the UN reported that more than 125 million people needed humanitarian assistance, yet this spring it faced a 45 percent shortfall in its emergency fundraising. Now, exciting new initiatives are emerging, like the Charter for Change, an agreement aimed at reshaping the partnerships between local organizations and their funders, and the Network for Empowered Aid Response, a platform for southern NGOs.

Oxfam itself has committed to boosting its direct funding of local partners from 24 percent to 30 percent by 2018, with the goal of putting more decision-making power into the hands of those with most at stake in emergencies. An even bigger undertaking is ahead of us: revisiting our partnerships around the world with an eye to strengthening local organizations and boosting their leadership. But at a recent celebration of International Women’s Day, Ramírez delivered high praise for our efforts so far: “In Spanish, when someone supports us we say they have their hands on our back. We really feel like Oxfam has had its hands on our back.”

In a disaster, lives depend on a quick response. Your gift to Oxfam’s Saving Lives 24/7 Fund will go directly toward our emergency work.

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Additional credits: In the opening photo, shot by Holly Pickett, community health promoters Dienabou Mballo, left, and Khadiatou Balde, right, test household drinking water in the village of Fafacourou, Senegal—part of a program carried out by the Forum for Sustainable Indigenous Development (FODDE) during the food crisis of 2012. Local organizations like FODDE, whose staffers speak the languages and understand the cultures of disaster-affected communities, are crucial to effective programs—and deserve to play a leadership role in emergency response. The video featuring Carlos Mejia includes photographs shot by Eva-Lotta Jansson, Claudia Barrientos, René Figueroa, Tessa Bunney, Pablo Tosco, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Sam Spickett, Mahmud/MAP, Abiy Getahun, Tauseef Mustafa, and GMB Akas/Panos for Oxfam America.

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