Funding the Frontline: How an Oxfam Emergency Response Fund facilitated local humanitarian action

Clerence Tamara, a leader in her island community in Vanuatu on disaster preparedness and risk reduction, blows a conch shell—a warning signal for her community. “In my community, we blow the conch shell in emergencies, and it means ‘act now!’ I would like to blowthe conch shell so everyone in the world can hear it, because climate change is an emergency, and to stop it, we all need to act now.” (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam America)
Paper author: 
Janice Ian Manlutac
Paper publication date: 
Friday, April 9, 2021

From 2014 to 2020 Oxfam embedded an Emergency Response Fund (ERF) in its multiyear disaster risk reduction programs in Asia-Pacific and Central America. The Oxfam ERF was designed as a flexible funding mechanism to prioritize small-scale, under-the-radar, and forgotten emergencies and help local actors respond to and mitigate the impacts of disasters in their communities. ERF grants totaling US$1.9 million were disbursed and supported 24 small-scale responses led by 15 local organizations in nine countries. The ERF, through the support of a donor who values local leadership, helped local actors shape humanitarian responses, and the simplicity of fund administration unlocked creativity and delivered speed without compromising the quality and accountability of humanitarian aid.

Research results showed that the ERF supported LHL, allowed fund recipients to respond rapidly, especially to politically sensitive disasters, and supported underfunded phases of emergency response. Both Oxfam staff and local actors who were interviewed in the research credited the ERF with leveraging local capacity, providing opportunities to innovate, and preventing program losses in the event of disasters. Across the 24 humanitarian responses that the ERF supported, local actors demonstrated that they could swiftly reach isolated communities and, by being first on the ground, help shape response options with input from the affected populations. Backed by ERF funding, local actors also leveraged additional resources to scale up these responses and put a spotlight on forgotten emergencies.

Helping donors understand the need for local humanitarianism can be fast tracked if international actors like Oxfam, working side by side with local actors, purposely provide options and solutions to remove barriers to direct funding to local actors. This also includes introducing local actors directly to donors, highlighting and crediting their work in every response, and nurturing years of a relationship built on trust and evidence-based learning,

There is a consensus among respondents that the funding landscape is changing and that funding mechanisms like ERFs should not be the exception but the norm. ERFs and other types of emergency funding reviewed in this research—designed for, and ideally in consultation with, local actors—should be multiplied and scaled up in contrast to the current trend, in which big donors launch fewer calls for proposals and concentrate larger amounts of funding in each call. Humanitarian actors in general could also explore opening new funding streams such as crowdfunding, local actors outsourcing other services where possible, such as procurement of supplies, and adopting other non-traditional methods of resource mobilization. There is also the emergence of local pooled funds and community philanthropies. Local actors see the need for INGOs to change and have identified focus areas for collaboration so that together they can shape the humanitarian system and make it more effective in delivering aid.

Research respondents said that the ERF process can nonetheless be improved. Both Oxfam staff and partners strongly suggest designing ERFs that could eventually be managed directly by local actors and handed over to a network of local organizations. In the meantime, immediate changes could include letting local actors apply for ERF grants directly in the new cycle of the Oxfam DRR program and negotiate their terms.

Research findings also showed that ERF-type funding should be complemented with strong capacity sharing and indirect cost recovery to allow local and national organizations to continually develop and sustain their organizations beyond project-based implementation.

Finally, the following recommendations from the research findings apply to the wider humanitarian sector and call for addressing key challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. They are also meant to help improve the new phase of the Oxfam DRR ERF.

  • Address the challenge of transboundary disaster management.
  • Explore anticipatory finance.
  • Rethink the development-humanitarian divide.
  • Rethink layered risks and hazards and local emergencies.
  • Include learning.
  • Fund women’s rights organizations (WROs) and gender interest organizations (GIOs) directly.

This research discusses the changing roles of Oxfam,[1] other INGOs, and local actors. Local actors also see the need for themselves to change, and they have identified key areas in which to focus their efforts, including investing in knowledge management and monitoring and accountability systems. Local actors interviewed also want to start computing their own ICR. Lastly, by taking responsibility for the visibility of their own work, local actors could contribute to thought leadership and organically transform the humanitarian system and sector to be locally led.

[1] The speed and scale of change within Oxfam have an impact on the support it can provide to local partners. Oxfam has moved toward a “one program approach,” which results in more streamlined systems. Part of this process is the formation of regional clusters across the confederation. The ERF should update its guidance note and trigger protocols against this backdrop, and suggest efficiencies learned from the last 24 responses it supported.