International humanitarian system must go from global to local

Campaigns and Advocacy, Humanitarian Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 07 Feb 2012

The international humanitarian response system will not cope with the expected rise in the number of people exposed to crises unless resources are built up 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 was still ‘too little, too late’ and was often determined by the vagaries of media and political interest rather than the level of human need.

Oxfam Australia emergencies manager Richard Young said coping with the expected strains on the humanitarian system would mean a shift from global to local.

“We are already seeing the centre of humanitarian action moving away from the Western world to the local and the national but this move needs to accelerate,” he said.

“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 organisations already on the ground that are primed to go will increase both the speed and the efficiency of the aid effort and ultimately will save more lives.”

Mr Young said the shift was vital as significant demands would be placed on the humanitarian system in the coming years with the expected rise in the number of disasters, and the failure to adequately resolve conflicts 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 signed up to international agreements on disaster risk reduction, but 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,” Mr Young said.

A copy of the report is available here. For interviews or more information contact Oxfam Australia Media Coordinator Chee Chee Leung on 0400 732 795 or