Saving lives by changing the nature of emergency response

By Oxfam
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Biro Balde, a community outreach worker with NADEL, prepares to check people’s temperatures as they cross the border from Guinea to Guinea-Bissau. “Even if it puts you at risk, you will work to protect your community and your country,” he says. Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

There is a growing movement to “localize” disaster aid—and Oxfam and our partners are at the forefront. At forums across the world, we are calling for a shift in power and resources that will enable responsible national governments and organizations to mount effective emergency responses without having to rely heavily on international aid providers.

Our goal: locally led disaster aid that is quicker, more efficient, more sustainable, and more empowering to disaster-affected communities. But while we build on a new model of emergency management, the Syria crisis and the Nepal earthquakes are reminders that when it comes to emergencies, one size doesn’t fit all. 

Syria: “We are best able to reach people”

A few years ago, Hazem Rihawi was a manager at a pharmaceutical factory in Syria. Then war came, upending the lives of more than 20 million Syrians, nearly five million of whom—Rihawi among them—have fled their homeland. Still, their hearts remain in Syria, and that’s why Rihawi has been working to bring global attention to the health care needs of families trapped there and to provide life-saving care to more than a million people inside the country. Based in Turkey, Rihawi recently served as advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization led by the Syrian diaspora that Oxfam has been working with both in the US and in the region. And Syrians are the right people to be leading this effort. As Rihawi attests, “We are best able to reach people. … The local NGOs are carrying the big load, and the big risks.”

Guinea-Bissau: Keeping deadly diseases at bay

In Guinea-Bissau, no news is good news. Ebola hasn’t crossed its porous land border with Guinea or landed on its shores with fishermen from Liberia and Sierra Leone. And cholera, which used to arrive with every rainy season—infecting more than 10,000 people some years—hasn’t made an appearance since 2013. Oxfam’s investment in a dynamic local partner and in the government’s public health capacity is one big reason why Guinea-Bissau wasn’t making headlines in 2016. For years, we’ve supported the National Association for Local Development (NADEL) to reduce the threat of cholera through its network of local health outreach workers; when Ebola reared its head, NADEL pivoted to Ebola-prevention messages, intensified its hand-washing campaign, and provided trained staff to identify Ebola cases at border checkpoints. Meanwhile, we helped the government improve coordination with international aid providers, get the country’s new emergency operations center off the ground, and develop a set of protocols to ensure that future responses will be quicker and more effective. “Local groups and authorities,” says Dr. Dam Zora Nangomde, a regional health director, “should be ready to handle emergencies immediately, and not have to wait for help to arrive from other countries.” We agree completely.

Nepal: After the earthquakes

When a massive earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, followed by a second one less than a month later, the destruction was devastating: close to 9,000 people died, 22,000 were injured, and 750,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. In all, nearly a third of Nepal’s population was affected. Oxfam and its local partners responded immediately—and with ingenuity. Early on, when helicopters were in short supply and some of the highest villages were virtually unreachable, we sought the experience of Nepal’s famous mountain guides and porters to ensure aid got through. Carrying enormous packs and hiking four hours from the epicenter of the first quake, a team delivered 2.5 tons of relief supplies to Laprak, 7,054 feet above sea level. All told, Oxfam reached close to half a million people, constructed 50,000 emergency shelters, supported 54,000 families with hygiene kits, and built more than 7,200 latrines.

But our response went deeper than that. In the months following the quakes, we worked with villagers to help them rebuild their livelihoods. Multipurpose grants allowed more than 2,300 families to restart their businesses and restore community infrastructure. And we paid keen attention to the needs of women by helping to establish women’s centers that have provided group counseling and one-on-one sessions to some of the most vulnerable survivors.

El Salvador: Local leaders take aim at El Niño and Zika

El Salvador faces more than its share of challenges. It sits in a region susceptible to earthquakes and hurricanes, and it is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This was made vividly clear in 2015–16 as the global weather phenomenon El Niño—one of the strongest on record, exacerbated by climate change—hit El Salvador. Crops withered in the fields and farmers struggled to feed their families.

Steady investments in local people, however, are helping El Salvador cope with the deadly hazards it faces every year. This vulnerable country has shown a disproportionately strong ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies. For more than a decade, Oxfam has been helping strengthen Salvadoran capacity to manage disasters and minimize the need for international assistance. There are now approximately 15 local organizations trained and ready to provide food, water, and sanitation during and after emergencies, and a national commission made up of NGOs and government representatives has just taken over a key emergency function of the UN in El Salvador. The results in FY16: locally led and coordinated action to handle the aftermath of a storm surge and provide food vouchers to drought-stricken farmers, and a nationwide campaign to prevent the spread of Zika.

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