Opinion: Disaster philanthropy needs a feminist and participatory approach

Women of Juchitán in the Mexican state of Oaxaca working to rebuild their community after the 2017 Puebla earthquake. Screengrab from Fondo Semillas

It’s been over a year and a half since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck central and southern Mexico, killing hundreds, contorting buildings, and splitting roads open. In the aftermath, the international community mobilized 440 tons of humanitarian aid and the Mexican government allocated billions of pesos to recovery. Yet today, many of the communities look the same as they did the day after the earthquake.  

Our current approach to disaster response isn’t working.

Aid is too focused on the immediate aftermath of emergencies. The vast majority of humanitarian aid is top-down and rarely put in the hands of impacted communities themselves — 94% of relief aid flows to international NGOs and only 0.4% of international humanitarian assistance goes to local and national groups.

What if we approached disaster philanthropy differently?

At their core, emergency and rebuilding projects are development efforts that can and should be participatory and grounded in the needs of those most impacted. They should also take into account how gender, race, ethnicity, disability, class, and age are impacted differently by both disaster and response. 

A participatory approach to humanitarian assistance  

We believe including a participatory, human rights, and feminist lens into crisis philanthropy can result in more meaningful and successful interventions, not only to rebuild houses but to give support to victims to rebuild other aspects of their lives. This model puts funds directly in the hands of women leaders and movements, recognizing both the unique needs of women and girls and the unequal power and resourcing dynamics that often disadvantage them. 

After the earthquake, Fondo Semillas launched a campaign supporting 25 women-led grassroots organizations carrying out rebuilding projects in their own communities. The campaign’s premise was that community members know their needs better than any external entity and women are too often overlooked as leaders.

These groups are currently working on projects to reactivate their economy, provide emotional support to women, and rebuild community cohesion. In aggregate, these Mexican women’s groups are focusing on what too many other international NGOs and local nonprofits are not: the intangible and long-term recovery process.

Support intersectional, multiyear, local, and women-led initiatives  

A global funder might be far removed from the emergency or conflict, but can still support participatory, rights-based responses. In the aftermath of disasters like the Mexico earthquake, Global Fund for Women looks to get money to the ground as quickly as possible. Here are some of the best practices we’ve found in integrating a feminist and participatory approach to global funding for emergency response. 

Disaster doesn’t cut evenly across society. The marginalized are often most affected. Therefore, we support intersectional relief efforts that take into account how community groups across race, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender, disability, and age are impacted differently. 

This means funding leaders of those groups, not funding programs targeting those communities as beneficiaries. When we aided Tewa, Nepal’s first women’s fund, after the earthquake, the founder, Rita Thapa spoke to the rarity of this: “Women got pittance support from the aid, and whatever aid went for development here in Nepal went mostly to men-led organizations.”

Many donors expect to see impact shortly after they send money, but rebuilding processes take longer. At Global Fund for Women, we provide core, multiyear, flexible support. And we try to be patient with results.

Fondo Semillas didn’t have a specialized disaster response team when the earthquake hit. They wanted to embark on emergency response but didn’t have staff capacity. We gave Fondo Semillas a flexible $60,000 grant over three years as seed money. Fondo Semillas then fundraised $1 million on top of that and dispersed the funds using a participatory model. As a funder from the global north, we hope to seed money and then engender local philanthropy for longer-term sustainability.    

Lastly, we recognize the value of local and national women’s rights actors in humanitarian action and fund locally led agendas shaped by those most impacted. This helps provide what is too often missing from top-down emergency response and rebuilding: a strategy grounded in local needs. 

We’re joining others highlighting the role of women’s rights in humanitarian aid and are a founding member of the new Feminist Humanitarian Network that will support women’s organizations to take their space in the humanitarian system, build the research and evidence to support a feminist humanitarian agenda, and communicate that agenda widely among humanitarian actors.

What if humanitarian funders scaled this model?    

We would like to see more donors shift toward a participatory model of disaster philanthropy, where communities, marginalized groups, and first-hand victims are included in long-term, self-led reconstruction. This is good for recovery. It’s also good for communities.  

Disasters tragically upend the status quo. But in doing so, they create an opportunity for something new. The projects funded by Fondo Semillas sought to improve lives beyond where they were before, through tangibles, such as solar panels, and intangibles, including new networks.

Reconstruction efforts are openings to build movements, improve conditions, and recraft societal structures. Crises can be used as catalysts to strengthen citizen participation and women’s leadership, access to justice, accountability, and transparency.

In short, when done well, recovery projects can build resilience.

By putting resources and control directly in the hands of local organizations, participatory relief helps communities meet their immediate needs while building ability — know-how, relationships, and resources — to rise to the moment to overcome whatever shocks and stresses might come tomorrow.

About the authors

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    Leila Hessini

    Leila Hessini serves as the vice president of programs at Global Fund for Women and oversees its strategic grantmaking, movement-strengthening, voice, and advocacy efforts. She is a global feminist leader and social justice advocate with over 20 years of organizing and grantmaking experience promoting an intersectional lens to advancing human rights, gender equality, and economic and reproductive justice in the United States and globally.
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    Florencia Bluthgen

    Florencia Bluthgen earned her bachelor’s degree in social communications in Buenos Aires and her master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University, Massachusetts. She has worked in nonprofits in Argentina, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, and the U.S. in education, poverty alleviation, youth development and women's rights. She is currently the project manager for Fondo Semillas' Women Rebuilding their Communities project, a special project that supports community groups led by women working on the reconstruction of their communities after the 2017 earthquakes that hit central and southern Mexico.