International humanitarian system will not cope with increased case load without going local

Published: 7th February 2012

The international humanitarian response system will fail to cope with the expected rise in the number of people exposed to crises unless there are more resources closer to where disasters happen and there is more investment in preventing and reducing the risk of disasters, warned international agency Oxfam today.

In a new report, Crises in a New World Order, Oxfam said that while governments’ and agencies’ response to emergencies has greatly improved it still remains ‘too little, too late’ and is often determined by the vagaries of media and political interest rather than level of human need.

“Coping with the expected strains on the humanitarian system will mean a shift from global to local. We are already seeing the center of humanitarian action moving away from the Western world to the local and the national but this move needs to accelerate. International aid agencies cannot just pitch up, patch up and push-off, they also have to ensure that people and countries are better prepared to withstand future shocks. Having local organizations already on the ground are primed to go will increase both the speed and the efficiency of the aid effort and ultimately will save more lives,” said Jane Cocking OxfamGB’s Humanitarian Director. 

This shift is vital as significant demands will be placed on the humanitarian system through the expected rise in the number of people exposed to disasters, the rising number of weather-related disasters and the failure to resolve conflicts adequately and turn round failed states.

Humanitarian work is effective in an emergency but more emphasis should be placed on preventing crises escalating. Not only would it save lives, but it would also save money. The UN estimated that in Niger in 2005 it cost $1 to save a malnourished child’s life. Once Niger’s food crisis was in full swing it cost $80. 

Too little has been done to prevent and reduce the risk of disaster. Aid to programs that reduce the risk of disaster stood at only 0.5 per cent of total aid spending in 2009. National governments have committed themselves to this work by signing up to the international agreements on disaster risk reduction. While many have developed policies and legislation too little effective action has happened. 

Bangladesh is an example of the importance of this work. In 1991 a cyclone struck Bangladesh killing an estimated 140,000 people. A similar sized cyclone hit the country in 2007 killing 3,406 people, still a high death toll but much reduced due in part to the government’s efforts at implementing early warnings and evacuating people to safety.

“Shifting more money to preventing and reducing the risk of disaster makes eminent sense but it does not mean taking it away from urgent humanitarian response. It is not the case of either or. We will still need the funds to immediately respond to dire human crises,” said Cocking. 

This vision of a new humanitarian world is fraught with challenges. Ensuring the quality of aid and the principles that guide humanitarian action will not be easy. 

Over the last two decades a great deal of effort has been done to lay down minimum standards and quality of humanitarian aid. National governments and local organisations will need a great deal of support, and in some cases encouragement, to adhere to these standards. 

The more fundamental challenge will be upholding the principles of impartiality – aid based on need - and independence – aid free of political interest. Many Western donors tend to focus on their spheres of influence and interest which may not coincide always with meeting human need. Non-Western donors are now becoming more important funders of humanitarian operations. But they too have their own particular interests. For example the Arab and Muslim countries in 2011 gave generously to Somalia, Libya and Yemen. These decisions reflect political and cultural affinities but also raise questions of how aid is to be targeted to human need. 

New entrants into the operations of humanitarian aid will pose challenges to impartiality and independence. The increased involvement of the private sector in supporting the aid effort is welcome and has many benefits but running aid programs themselves will challenge humanitarian principles given that commercial interest sits uncomfortably with putting human need first and foremost. 

Read more

Download the report: Crises in a New World Order (PDF, 333KB)

Oxfam's responses to emergencies

International aid agencies cannot just pitch up, patch up and push-off, they also have to ensure that people and countries are better prepared to withstand future shocks.
Jane Cocking
Oxfam GB Humanitarian Director

Contact information

Ian Bray, Senior Press Officer: +44 (0)1865 472289 / +44 (0)7721 461339