The overstretched and underfunded humanitarian system must change to fulfill its mandate, says international humanitarian organization Oxfam, as the international community struggles to respond to seemingly intractable conflicts like Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan and increasing extreme climate events now exacerbated by Super El Niño. These needs are only growing – just last week the UN appealed for $7.7 billion dollars for the Syria crisis after falling far short of its appeal last year.
In its new report, Righting the Wrong: Strengthening local humanitarian leadership to save lives and strengthen communities, Oxfam states that millions have benefited from the global humanitarian system in its current form, but that it must be overhauled to meet these stark new realities. Specifically, Oxfam is calling for a larger and predictable pool of humanitarian funding, more investment in preventing and planning for crises and more direct funding to local organizations, including resources that will increase their capacity to lead humanitarian responses.
“Oxfam has seen time and again that the best humanitarian responses have local people, organizations and governments at their core with international groups supporting as needed. Local people are already there, know what their communities truly need and will remain long after the international attention wanes,” Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser said. “We must ensure that these true first responders have the resources and power to make decisions for themselves. If we are serious about preventing and responding to disasters, we must embrace local people as equal partners and leaders.”
For example, after Bhola cyclone in Bangladesh killed over 500,000 people in 1970 followed by more devastating tropical cyclones, the government decided it must act before a disaster strikes. They invested, with international donor and partner support, in emergency preparedness, including cyclone shelters and early warning systems. In 2007, a much higher intensity cyclone Sidr killed 3,300 – less than 1% of those killed in 1970. These investments work.
Local leadership and partnership is not just an option for natural disasters - this approach can apply to man-made emergencies, too, where brave civil society groups and individuals are on the front lines and need support. In conflict settings, humanitarian organizations must look for opportunities to strengthen local civil society’s ability to continue their vital work. In Iraq, Oxfam’s partner REACH works across sectarian and political divides to provide lifesaving assistance by relying on knowledge of the local context and a diverse staff to ensure they gain access to isolated areas – areas that international groups may not be able to reach.
Oxfam reports that it is vital to allocate resources to local communities to prevent disasters, or at least prepare for them, is vital, but is not a priority for most donors: Over the last 30 years, only 0.4% of total development assistance was spent on reducing the risks of disasters. Oxfam is calling for an increase of $5 billion in annual overseas development assistance for disaster risk reduction and for at least 10% of global humanitarian funding to go directly to local organizations by 2020.
As the existing international humanitarian system struggles to meet these demands, Oxfam is offering options for how the global community can manage its collective response and resources better to meet a common goal – to improve and save as many lives as possible. Ray Offenheiser said, “Humanitarian crises are only growing in frequency and urgency and we must adapt. While these changes are complex and long-term, the conversations and commitments must happen now. Oxfam hopes that discussions and outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit and other forums emphasize that we must work with and learn from local communities as part of our joint mission to create a more predictable and robust way to prevent and respond to crises.”