Time for an alternative humanitarian response funding model

Emergency responders at a communication center during Typhoon Hagupit. The recent response to the typhoon has shown that local actors should be empowered to take the lead so they will need less outside help. Photo by: Hari Krishna Nibanupudi / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Last week, the Philippine government and the World Meteorological Organization predicted that Hagupit could become the second super typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines in 13 months.

Typhoon Haiyan left more than 6,000 people dead and 4 million displaced from their homes when it hit the country on Nov. 8, 2013. Hagupit was projected to hit many of the same areas that were devastated by Haiyan and are still struggling to recover. Life remains precarious in the aftermath of Haiyan, with many in the region unable to regain previous income levels and continuing to live in inadequate or unsafe shelter. The stage was set for a tragedy of historic proportions.

While not as powerful as originally projected, Hagupit was still a ferocious storm, pummeling the Eastern Visayas region with sustained wind speeds of 125 miles per hour. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Filipinos owe their survival to good fortune with the shift in weather.

Thousands could have perished had the Philippine government not carried out one of the largest peacetime evacuations ever recorded — over 1 million people moved to safer locations — and worked in communities throughout the country to prepare for the worst. Across areas in the typhoon’s path, local government authorities clearly explained storm warnings and worked hand in hand with local organizations to evacuate communities, which saved countless lives. Potential impacts of the storm were also mitigated as families undertook preparedness measures as well, moving fishing boats away from the coastline, accessing emergency food and water supplies and harvesting what crops they could.

Historically, large-scale humanitarian responses have been led by the U.N. and governmental aid agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development, together with international nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam, which all typically only raise significant funds after disaster has struck. Governments and NGOs in affected countries are often sidelined from the effort — even if as first responders and members of their communities, they are best placed to save lives.

This system simply cannot meet the humanitarian needs of the 21st century. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and donors and relief organizations are already struggling to keep pace. Just weeks before the end of 2014, the U.N.’s 2014 appeal for global humanitarian funding is still $3.5 billion short of being met.

The Philippine government’s approach illustrates a compelling alternative to this antiquated model. To support it, international partners must direct more funding straight to governments and local groups that educate communities about the hazards they face, how to prepare for disasters and mitigate impacts, and most importantly, how to hold their government accountable for its performance.

Reform would mean a new role for international humanitarian agencies like Oxfam. We are up for the challenge and embrace the need for change, because we believe it will save more lives at less cost. In our new role, we will focus on empowering local groups and ensuring that they have the space and the power to lead. When mega-disasters like Haiyan overwhelm local systems, international groups must respond quickly; even then, however, we must do so with an eye toward empowering and building the capacity of local communities.

In the past, the success of global relief organizations has been measured by the number of people reached with assistance during and after an emergency. The response to Hagupit shows us a different way: In the future, success should be measured not just by the number of people we provide with water, food and shelter — but by how effectively we empower local actors to take the lead, so that more people won’t need our help in the first place.

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About the author

  • Ray offenheiser photo

    Ray Offenheiser

    Ray Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America. With more than 30 years of international development experience as a field programmer, grant-maker and executive in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States, Offenheiser is a recognized leader on issues such as poverty alleviation, human rights, foreign policy and international development.