“If someone comes here and wants to do something, we don’t say no because we don’t want to say no to donors”.(1) If this district government official in Kenya is right then it seems there is a problem. Can it be that local people have so little power that they cannot tell international aid providers that they don’t want assistance? Do other domestic actors play an equally passive role? In two case studies carried out by GHA recently in Bangladesh and Uganda, rescue, evacuation and security (in the case of Uganda following insecurity) provided by the community and the government was ranked by the communities as the most valued form of assistance. Following Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, the authorities not only dispatched six ships, numerous helicopters and thousands of troops to the affected area, distributing large quantities of aid, they also continued to distribute food for months after the disaster, feeding more than 3.5 million people. This compared to World Food Programme’s (WFP) 750,000.(2) Even in the most complex of situations such as Somalia, business people supply investment and goods for the running of local social services such as hospitals, and provide essential public services such as electricity.
This is not to suggest that international assistance isn’t incredibly valuable – without it, many lives would undoubtedly be lost and many households would be living with extreme poverty and suffering – but we need to ask the question, have we got the balance right between the international humanitarian system and its domestic counterpart?
How much do we know about what individuals, groups, organisations and authorities in the affected country are already doing to respond to the crisis? Although the United Nations Financial Tracking System (UN FTS) was designed to record international humanitarian system some domestic response does appear. Between 2000 and 2009 US$ 299.8 million is recorded on the FTS for domestic response which compares with US$ 75.4 billion in international humanitarian expenditure over the same period. This is surely a gross under-estimate of domestic response. Between 2001 and 2007 the humanitarian expenditure of the Indonesian government alone was more than three times that amount.(3) Aid Information Management Systems (AIMs), database management systems that allow recipient countries to record and track inputs from international donors, also show some domestic resource mobilisation. Of the 19 AIMS we analysed, 35% of them showed some domestic humanitarian response. However, again, the volumes reported are very small.
To get a more comprehensive idea it is necessary to do more extensive analysis country-by-country. Some government data may be available on-line but often it is not and sometimes there are lengthy processes to obtain it. To ascertain what has been spent by the private sector and local civil society, that information is obtained from the individual company or organisation. And as for determining how the communities themselves respond –surveys are required to find this out. Perhaps for these reasons, domestic response goes largely uncounted.
During our case studies in Uganda and Bangladesh we found many examples of local people helping others. The development arm of the Catholic Church in Uganda received assorted items worth US$3000 from Ugandans based in the United Kingdom (UK) following the floods as well as items donated by university students and the Rotary club, while the Anglican Church received 3000 tonnes of food donations collected from churches in other parts of the country. The Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturer and Exporter Association (BKMEA) have their own relief fund which can be used in short notice and supplemented by funds collected from members. BKMEA recent responses include BDT 8.40 million (US$ 120,000) spent on relief items following cyclone Aila and BDT 1.25 million (US$18,000) spent on relief after the 2007 floods. In one study area in Bangladesh the local community leaders have been organised into a disaster committee by a local NGO. Over 90% of inhabitants in that area have mobile phones so when a particular weather pattern occurs that indicates floods or a cyclone is on the way, local leaders text other community members telling them to evacuate. The leaders use their own funds to pay local boatmen to take people and assets to higher ground. Following the recent landslides in Uganda, the international community decided it wasn’t necessary to mount an appeal due to the overwhelming domestic response.
So if individuals, groups and governments in affected countries endeavour to help those affected do they have the recognition and voice they deserve? Or do we place too much emphasis on domestic actors, perhaps expecting too much of them? “Many in the capital Port-au-Prince picked away at shattered buildings with bare hands, sticks and hammers hoping to find loved-ones alive.(4) “Maybe the community, already traumatized by events, shouldn’t have to search for loved ones, alternatively when international agencies come in they don’t want to be brushed aside. “Many people were happy with the increased focus on supporting local organisations” reports the Listening Project. However, some respondents complained that the strengths of local people are overlooked “why don’t you value local knowledge and capacity? We have engineers and experts too” while “people in several places were critical or the large number of ….briefcase NGOs and wallet NGOs” of such organisations.(5) Language barriers are often cited as a reason why local staff feel marginalised, with meetings being conducted in rapid English, a criticism that has also been levelled in such a high profile disaster such as Haiti. The presence of expatriate staff can either stifle debate or promote too much focus on them, as they are seen as providers of resources. As for governments, where states are weaker, international actors can step up – where the domestic system is stronger, international actors can take a less prominent role focusing their activities on specific areas of response.
Those from the affected country who respond to crises should have the voice and recognition they deserve. Their contribution to humanitarian assistance should be acknowledged and counted. Their particular strengths should be utilized, their capacity analysed, and support offered where recognized and needed. Making domestic response much more visible, both in terms of its scale and its inter-relation with international aid, will help to get the balance right.
(1) CDA Collaborative Learning Project. March 2010. The Listening Project Issue Paper: Structural Relationships in the Aid System.
(2) GHA report 2010
(3) Data not available for 2003
(4) Reuters, (Cawthrone, A and Brown, T. Jan 2010) Who’s running Haiti? No one, say the people. Available at http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N14205092.htm
(5) CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. June 2010. The Listening Project Issue Paper: The Role of Staffing Decsisions.