Tamas Wells reflects on the lessons from Cyclone Nargis and a new ODI report on humanitarian action
The lessons from the relief response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 could hardly have been clearer in my mind. Local communities themselves, along with local civil society groups, played THE central role in responding to the devastation.
International organisations were able to support this after their initial delays but the big coordination mechanisms of INGOs and UN, especially early after the cyclone, struggled to keep pace. The international humanitarian framework simply couldn’t keep track of, or control, what was going on.
But this didn’t stop international groups from drawing the vast majority of funding for their own work, or planting their flags in villages and towns across the delta. There was a ‘World Vision’ village here, or a CARE village there.
An important new international report from ODI argues (see link below) that it is time for the international humanitarian systems need to let go of an outdated way of thinking about relief responses.
After several years of background research on humanitarian responses around the world they say that the humanitarian system has held on for too long to some assumptions and ways of working that are just no true any longer, if they ever were.
There are two key messages.
“First, the UN and large international NGOs need to let go of power and control, to enable national and local aid organisations to lead crisis response.
Second, the humanitarian system needs to let go of the incentives that place organisational drives for greater resources and visibility above the needs of crisis-affected people.”
In other words, international agencies need to focus on supporting local and national responses, like those after Cyclone Nargis. Communities and local NGOs are legitimate humanitarian actors and the idea of waiting for the international experts is ridiculous.
And to follow on from this, international NGOs and UN agencies need to stop soaking up all the money and planting their own flags everywhere. Such behaviours undermine the work of local communities and groups.
It is encouraging to see that what was plain to see 8 years ago had found its way into a clear new message for the humanitarian community.
Let’s hope when Myanmar is faced by its next crisis these two lessons are at the front of everyone’s minds.