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"Local is more effective, say disaster relief experts"

John Mitchell

By John Mitchell on 26 October 2009.

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A recent article on Alertnet echoes a key finding of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition:

"When a disaster strikes, international relief agencies receive the bulk of media attention and donor funding but experts say it is actually the people living in the damaged areas who save the most lives and help survivors long after foreign aid workers leave."

The article goes on to highlight a number of improvements that international agencies should try to put in place.

- "International aid agencies can... support local relief efforts better. They could work more closely with the local government and NGOs to avoid duplication and waste"
- They should "maintain a good relationship with local officials who have the power to determine whether or not foreign aid workers can be present in crises"
- They should run meetings in local languages, and "hire more local staff who have better connections and understanding of the local culture"
- They should "share contingency plans with local organisations and do joint simulation exercises to make sure they can work smoothly together when a disaster strikes"
- They should [develop a] "good overview of what problems the local government and NGOs can deal with themselves and what will require outside help."

All of which makes an interesting comparison with the findings of a 2005 ALNAP study on capacity building in humanitarian action, which suggested that at that time, international agencies were failing to live up to their commitments to build the capacities of their local partners:

I wonder if this has changed significantly in the past 4-5 years? Are international agencies who do make the effort still 'notable exceptions'? Are effective local capacities restricted to natural disasters, or do they also play a role in complex emergencies such as Sudan, DRC and Somalia? And are there any good examples of the kinds of improvements called for in the Alertnet article? It would be good to know.

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1 comment

Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Saundra Schimmelpfennig (Writer) 27 October 2009, 15:43

If you read the Humanitarian Practice Network December 2008 Humanitarian Exchange on the Cyclone Nargis response in Myanmar you'll see that not much has changed. Here are just two quotes from the article titled "Support to local initiatives in the Nargis response: a fringe versus mainstream approach"

"participation by local NGOs was severely limited given the language, location and attitudes of main players in the international response"


"Given the constraints to direct implementation by INGOs, Nargis was the perfect opportunity for agencies to change their way of working, even if only on a small scale, by supporting local initiatives through or alongside their own operations. In the end, those few who normally work with partners did so, while those who directly implement stuck as far as possible to their standard operating procedures."

In developing an aid agency rating system, I've spent a great deal of time on aid agency websites. From the information that aid agencies share, any donor reading most of these websites would be left with the impression that there are few if any local aid agencies or CBO's in the developing world, that the government provides few social services, and that there are no coordination problems in the field.

I believe it's going to take a lot more than developing lessons learned and joint assessments to change how aid agencies function.

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