Rethinking humanitarian aid: the power of local leadership

Miguel Siesquen is cleaning water pumps for use in flood emergencies in Illimo, Peru.
Miguel Siesquen is cleaning water pumps for use in flood emergencies in Illimo, Peru. “It is important to strengthen our capacity because we are the people who live here.”

From the Indian Ocean tsunami and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, through to the long-running conflict in Syria, Oxfam is there every time disaster strikes the world’s poorest people. And each time we are inspired by the heroic actions of local people who strive to protect and care their communities against all odds.

The power of local leadership is key in these cases. That’s why we invest a lot in building the capacity of our partners, we work with them to become more resilient.

World leaders must support this new approach to saving lives in a changing world. They need to work together to reinforce national and local humanitarian responses, not replace or undermine them.

Meet some of the inspiring local leaders we work with:

Rosario Quispe, creating resilience in Peru

Rosario Quispe Caceres, Vice President of  PREDES, talks to a risk management specialist in San Juan de Miraflores.

Rosario Quispe Caceres, Vice President of Oxfam partner PREDES, talks to a risk management specialist in San Juan de Miraflores.

"We are the ones who live here. When a disaster happens we need to be able to respond and create resilience to future disasters” says Rosario. “We need to have the capacity to respond immediately in emergencies. Outside agencies can be effective and are very well intentioned, but to have them intervene, save us, and leave is not sustainable."

In Lima, Peru, Oxfam is working in communities at high risk of flooding to improve their water and sanitation in emergencies.

We provided training to the members of the water and sanitation roundtable, and encouraged participation of local governments. As a result, local leaders and volunteers now have the coordination they need to act quickly in an emergency.

Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, solidifying Haiti against disasters

Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, Director of Haiti’s Civil Protection Division

Photo: Anna Fawcus / Oxfam America

In Haiti one woman stands out as a leader in local capacity building.

Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste has been leading disaster response and preparedness efforts in Haiti for over 10 years.

Marie had just started her government career as an Emergency Coordinator in 2004 when devastating flood hit killing more than 2,000 people. At the time, Haiti’s disaster preparedness was run centrally. It was clear to Marie that this system was costing people their lives, so she redesigned it from the bottom up to create a decentralized strategy. Local leaders and communities now have the skills, tools, and knowledge they need to act quickly in an emergency.

“If you took the earthquake and cholera as examples from 2010, you would see big difference between the way they were managed. When cholera hit, the state made it clear that we were in the lead… We understood our weaknesses after the earthquake, so we worked hard to make the cholera response coordinated and local.”

Marie has continued to be a change-maker and a leader, supporting the government and empowering local actors.

Sidi Jaquite, building trust and saving lives in Guinea-Bissau

Sidi, NADEL’s director (center), talks to his Rapid Response Team in Catio, Guinea-Bissau.

Sidi  (center) talks to NADEL's Rapid Response Team in Catio Guinea-Bissau. The team were deployed to communities that were slow to recognize the urgent need for Ebola preparedness measures. Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

When Ebola struck West Africa in 2014, all eyes were on Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, but the neighboring country of Guinea-Bissau was gripped with fear.

With time and money, the country could upgrade its rural health system and key roads to prepare for an oncoming disaster but in this emergency, Guinea-Bissau had neither. What they did have was the complete dedication of an Oxfam partner called NADEL (the National Association for Local Development) and its dynamic and experienced director, Sidi Jaquite.

When Ebola appeared on the horizon, local team members quickly shifted their messages to help people understand the symptoms of the disease, what to do (and not to do) if they see someone with those symptoms, the importance of good hygiene, and the risk of eating wild animals that might be carrying the virus.

In 2015, a study to gauge the effectiveness of this work showed that more than 90% of the study participants now recognize all Ebola prevention measures.

For Sidi the key to this success has been trust, “we have built relationships and awareness”. Something that was only possible thanks to his and his teams drive to succeed.

Diénaba Diallo, a local food hero in Burkina

 Jacob Silberberg/Oxfam America

Diénaba Diallo. Photo: Jacob Silberberg/Oxfam America

 “People think that in Africa there’s nothing but starvation and problems. I just want them to know that there are people there who are working really hard,” said Diénaba Diallo. “They just need a little bit of a push to help them, and then they can resolve their own problems, and fight against hunger.”

Diallo has been an advocate for women since 1992. As the founder of her community’s first women’s association, Diallo helped fellow members plant a shared garden, buy a herd of livestock, and learn to read and write. “I wanted women to be empowered and to feel fulfilled,” said Diallo. She convinced other local mothers to send their children to school, which the former teacher believes will be essential for securing her country’s future.

Oscar Bestes, helping farmers with the impacts of climate change in the Philippines

Oscar Bestes, president of the Farmers Field School in Bao village, in the Philippines, in his stock room.

Oscar Bestes, president of the Farmers Field School in his stock room, Bao village.

At the end of January 2016, the provincial government of North Cotabato in Mindanao declared a state of calamity due to the severe drought attributed to El Niño, which is affecting the majority of this food-producing region.

“During the last drought, I was ten years old, remembers Oscar Bestes, 56, president of the Farmers Field School in Bao village. Our family had nothing. We survived by learning how to cook and eat buli (a wild indigenous species of fan palm). I don’t ever want to experience that again.”

Through an Oxfam-supported project, he has been encouraging his fellow farmers to prepare for the ‘worst case scenario’ and make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Showing us his stock room where he has stored four months worth of food, he explains “if it wasn’t for the farmers’ field school, where we’ve been learning about El Niño and its impacts, me and my fellow farmers would be a lot worse off than we are now. We have learned the importance of ensuring our own food security in times of uncertainty.”

Investing in local leadership is key

All over the world local leaders are preparing and protecting their communities from humanitarian disasters. However, less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance in emergencies is used to support local humanitarian organizations.  

Oxfam is calling for more aid resources and decision-making to be invested where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict and other crises.