What are the global trends in humanitarian response? How well is Oxfam responding?

November 18, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Twice a year Oxfam’s Regional Directors gather with its UK-based big cheeses to swap notes (they let me join them, for some reason). It’s anSyrian-refugees-79076scr opportunity to allow the collective mind to catch up with all those accumulating individual impressions of how the world and our work is changing.

Last week’s ‘deep dive’ was about humanitarian work: two days of conversations, questions and data dotted with video slots from emergencies experts in the UN, governments, academia and other NGOs telling us what they thought of our work. All this amid the intensity of a major response in the Philippines. The humanitarians seemed remarkably calm, considering.

What impressions emerged from the sea of flipcharts?

A sense if not of crisis, then of threat. To the humanitarian project as a whole, dogged by financing shortfalls, proliferating ‘weather events’, accusations of Western bias and questions about its ability to respond to the really big disasters like the Haiti earthquake. But also to Oxfam – amid a proliferating number of ‘humanitarian actors’, have we been trading on our reputation, failing to innovate? Are we Nokia or Apple?

Some serious history: a jointly constructed timeline showed the major world events of the last 70 years (decolonization, Vietnam, end of Cold War, end of Golden Age etc) through humanitarian specs. I’m becoming a big fan of starting almost any learning exercise with a timeline: it provides common reference points for all the subsequent discussions.

Philippines indonesiaIn this case, the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed us to work more in conflicts (before 1991, we mainly did natural disasters); each major humanitarian crisis (Rwanda, Asian tsunami, Haiti), led to a step change in the institutionalization/codification of the system, and the spread of coordination mechanisms and standards. Along the way we’ve moved from addressing consequences (‘emergencies’) to tackling causes (‘humanitarianism’).

Huge enthusiasm for giving people cash, (whether in emergencies or not) and growing scepticism about anything else (food, seeds, tools, shelter). Increasingly cash transfers are combined with IT, eg smart cards with the family’s details, allowing a degree of customization.

The mixed blessing of being a humanitarian organization that also does long-term development and campaigning (humanitarian is less than half of Oxfam’s total spend). On the positive side, our global advocacy on humanitarian issues wins lots of strokes from the UN and others who are not allowed to do that kind of thing.

But it also creates tensions, not least for the swashbuckling Indiana Jones types trying to get clean water flowing within 48 hours of a disaster, who also have to take into account a long list of other considerations (governance, gender, long term recovery, institution-building, working with local partners and other Oxfam affiliates etc). I’m sure some of them must wish they could just go ahead and drill the borehole.

And the humanitarian system seems to impose some limitations on how far we can go with this – ‘The money is in operations, the need is in advocacy and thinking’.

The proliferation of new players: new donors, BRICS, private sector, Diaspora groups, many of whom are often very critical of the existing ‘UN-centric, Western-donor funded system’ (too Christian, too slow and bureaucratic, too expensive, too preachy).

The rising demand from governments, as they migrate from the ‘unwilling and unable’ to ‘willing and unable’ bracket and start looking for help with building their own capacity to respond.

The challenge of really making women’s rights central to our humanitarian work. That means women as agents, not just ‘beneficiaries’ (awful word) – should we partner with women’s organizations rather than traditional (and more gender-blind) humanitarian organizations? Why don’t we hand out webcams and other kit to women after a disaster and let them tell their own stories rather than packaging everything ourselves? Why aren’t we collecting gender disaggregated data on our disaster responses?

The shift from trying to do it all ourselves to working with (and through) partners: this feels exciting, but also trickier than it is in long termMondejar-sisters-Nelia,-Sarah-Jane-and-Rizza-Mae---Disasters-Emergency-Committee---Philippines-Typhoon-Appeal---Oxfam development (due to the urgency of crisis response, and the prevailing can-do mindset). What will be the impact on our ability to raise funds if the cameras are on local government officials, rather than Oxfam staff?

But the potential gains are huge: partners, whether CSOs, faith organizations or governments, are already on (or at least near) the ground, and can be active in those vital first few days after a disaster.  They are much better placed to respond to the rising tide of small and medium-sized disasters that are one of the consequences of climate change.

If that all sounds a big abstract, that commitment to partnership is being stress tested right now in the Philippines, where we have helped set up the Humanitarian Response Consortium, made up of Filipino NGOs. My thoughts are with them, and the millions of their countrymen and women who need their help. If you have any spare cash, please dig deep.

November 18, 2013
Duncan Green