Friday, September 23, 2011


(Alertnet) - By Alex Whiting

LONDON - The international response to humanitarian crises is increasingly seen as “intrusive and disempowering” by communities caught up in disasters, a report on global crises said on Thursday.

Local people often have little say in what kind of aid is needed and do not receive enough training in what to do in a disaster, the World Disasters Report ( ) by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Even in countries like Haiti and Pakistan where the international community has been active for years, there has not been enough focus on training local authorities in dealing with disasters, Philip Tamminga, one of the authors of the report, told AlertNet.

“It’s disempowering, and it’s sometimes having an insidious effect of making the need for international interventions even more acute,” Tamminga, head of the Humanitarian Response Index ( , said.

Often it’s the victims of a disaster who are best placed to save the most lives. In last year’s Haiti earthquake, all the media attention was on the huge numbers of expensive international search and rescue teams.

“Yet probably an even greater number of people were rescued by friends and neighbours – people digging out with no tools and no training, and certainly no media attention,” Tamminga said.

“If the same amount of money spent on the search and rescue teams had been invested in building local capacity for any type of crisis, not just earthquakes but also hurricanes, I’m sure we would see much different and much better results,” he said.

Experts say that if there’s strong local capacity, the likelihood is that when a major crisis happens the local community will be able to respond more efficiently and more effectively.

“It’s important to invest in and work through national actors like the local Red Cross and local nongovernmental organisations because they know the context much better,” Tamminga said.

Even in relatively simple ways, local knowledge can make aid much more appropriate. Aid agencies gave out feminine hygiene kits during last year’s Pakistan floods which contained products never normally used by local women.

“As local and national capacities grow, local authorities will want to have a bigger role and say in how aid is distributed and allocated and managed,” Tamminga said.


Hundreds of aid agencies have signed up to codes of conduct that say survivors of a disaster should have an active role in designing and implementing humanitarian programmes.

But this rarely happens in practice.

“These people are still too often treated as passive onlookers as the experts determine not only what they should do in times of crises but also what they require in the aftermath,” the report said.

The more professional humanitarians have become, the less inclined they are to talk to local authorities and the vulnerable they are there to serve, the report said.

“It don’t seem that experts like talkin’ to the poor”, one survivor of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the United States in 2005, is quoted as saying.

A Haitian government official said recently that hundreds of Western aid agencies descended on the capital Port-au-Prince within days of last year’s massive earthquake, but not a single one made contact with Haitian authorities, Randolph Kent, co-author of the report and head of the London-based Humanitarian Futures Programme ( ) , told AlertNet.

Unless the aid world changes its approach, it may find local governments will be less amenable to such intrusive intervention in the future – no matter how well intentioned, Kent said.

When Western agencies rolled up after the Sichuan earthquake in China, the Chinese told them flatly they were not needed, he said.

Greater sensitivity to local culture, learning what governments and communities in disaster-prone regions actually want, and building contacts in those regions well before another humanitarian disaster “is the way in which the West can continue to play an international humanitarian role”, Kent said.

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