Where is everyone?

Are humanitarian agencies avoiding difficult interventions? Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director, challenges a recent MSF report’s negative portrayal of the humanitarian system. She points out that, over the last seven years, Oxfam has actually doubled the number of people it can help in a crisis and how more people can receive the help they so desperately need.

Humanitarian crises are chaotic, messy and dirty – the lives of communities and individuals fall apart before their eyes. 

This statement may be obvious, but it is an important one in any discussion of how those who offer help in these circumstances are performing. The MSF report, Where is Everyone? launched on 7th July, takes a welcome look at how international agencies responded to three recent crises. It concludes that what the humanitarian sector needs is more leadership, investment and better targeted help. However, I feel that the report is long on questions, but short on

There is certainly some truth in many of the observations made in the report, but they need to be seen with less hubris. 

Did people in these crises receive the quality and quantity of assistance they had a right to expect? Definitely not. Is more basic expertise needed in humanitarian response? Certainly yes. Are humanitarian agencies better or worse more or less risk averse than they were a number of years ago? To this final question, there is no simple answer. 

We have to empower… organisations… on the groundHowever, the key questions to which the answers are missing is “what happens next?” and “what must happen?”

The report takes as its core the “international humanitarian system” of UN agencies, International NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. While the capacity of this system has grown steadily, the number of people every year in need of humanitarian assistance has grown exponentially. Over the last couple of years the gap between what people in crises need and what international donors are willing to fund has widened more than at any time since 2000. 

When asked who helped them first and best, most people caught up in a crisis cite neighbours and local bodies, not the international community. If the world is to keep pace with an ever-increasing number of crises then we have to empower, support and grow those organisations and individuals on the ground closest to where crises happen

Over the past seven years Oxfam GB has more than doubled the number of people in crises who we helpThis endeavour is fraught with difficulties. Can local agencies be neutral in conflict? How does a small NGO fund a standing response capacity? How does it scale up quickly and efficiently? Not all of these questions are answerable right now, but it is only through embracing this challenge that those who remain unreached by humanitarian assistance will stand a chance of receiving what they need.

Over the past seven years Oxfam GB has more than doubled the number of people in crises who we help to around six million a year. We have done this mainly through growing our support to local partner agencies in Asia and Latin America. This means we can reinvest in our own skills in places like the Central African Republic and South Sudan, where local capacity is likely to remain weak. We are not alone, many others work in this way. The question is will MSF join us? I hope the answer to this question is a resounding

Read more 

• Read about our current emergency responses
• Read about our approach to humanitarian response
• Download our humanitarian policy notes

Header image: 
Mary Ajak Maluk shares her thoughts with Oxfam staff during a community meeting in Mingkaman camps, South Sudan. Oxfam regularly holds meetings with community members in order to better understand what’s working well and what needs to be improved. Credit: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam

Author: Jane Cocking
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.