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Oxfam is preparing for the next disaster, by cutting its parachutes and investing in locals

Flooding from Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana), Philippines 2009. Photo: AusAID

The way the world responds to a humanitarian crisis is not working. The cost is too high for aid groups, and when disaster strikes one group remains on the sidelines – the people affected. Change is needed.

Less than 2 percent of humanitarian assistance between 2007 and 2013 went to local groups and people. A new campaign by Oxfam America wants to cut the strings from the parachuting humanitarian sector by encouraging the U.S. to invest in building up the ability of local communities to respond to emergencies.

“A lot of the smaller emergencies are handled by local actors,” said Greg Adams, director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam, in an interview with Humanosphere. “There are some jobs we should be working ourselves out of. There are some jobs we shouldn’t be doing.”

The advertisement campaign “No Parachute Needed” features some of the first responders who step up when disaster strikes. It puts front and center the capability of people to lead relief in their own countries. Adams wants donors like the U.S. and NGOs like Oxfam to pivot away from deploying staff following every disaster.

It is not an all or nothing proposition. International groups are needed following major disasters and in vulnerable countries. There are roles both in-country and abroad that are necessary to the humanitarian sector, anonymous aid blogger J wrote today.

“There are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere,” he said. “Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.”

credit: Oxfam America

credit: Oxfam America

The campaign does not bring about a new or radical idea, rather it brings the discussion of development into the humanitarian fray. Its aim is to make humanitarian work as effective as possible.

It is also the latest campaign in a growing trend to localize humanitarian aid. The food aid reform movement says that more good is done when food comes from local markets. It is often faster and cheaper than sending from the U.S.

Buzzwords like resilience, capacity building and sustainable development orbit these initiatives. All mean the same thing – making investments that will allow people, communities and governments to help themselves.

The Philippines is a good example of how this can work. When Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country in November 2013, humanitarian groups scrambled to assist people in need. A year later, the country suffered another typhoon landfall, but the results were different. Typhoon Hagupit was weaker than Haiyan when it hit the islands of the country, but the investments taken by the country over the span of a year left it better prepared.

Even with Haiyan, it was local Filipinos who were crucial to the humanitarian response. It is the same story whether it is Haiti after its earthquake, flooding in Pakistan or Ebola in West Africa. Locals are the first responders, not the U.N., U.S. or Oxfam.

In each case, the international community provided support so that people in those places could deal with a crisis. Humanitarian reforms are needed to address the reality of today.

credit: Oxfam America

credit: Oxfam America

“We are seeing an explosion in demand that the global humanitarian sector cannot meet,” said Adams. “The system we have today was born out of a response to famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s where it was believed the government had no interest in providing assistance. If there was another chance to redesign the humanitarian system, it would not look like how it does today.”

Oxfam, for its part, set out the goal that by 2019 its local partners should be able to respond to a disaster of 100,000 people or fewer, without the deployment of Oxfam staff. They have to do more walking than talking, said Adams. Their hope is that the U.S. government will make a similar pledge and allocate resources to achieving it.

Preventing the next major disaster starts with investing in the people at the greatest risk. The campaign brings the conversation back to the basic imperative for development. People are able to deal with hardship when they have adequate services, well-paying jobs, strong health systems, infrastructure and more.

“This is a humanitarian challenge,” said Adams. “We cannot keep growing the system.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]