The call for local humanitarian leadership, where decision-making and funding models intentionally shift power to local and national actors before, during and after a crisis, has been around for at least the last 10 years, and was reinforced with pledges and commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. Pivotal events over the past year – the Covid-19 pandemic, calls to decolonise aid and the Black Lives Matter Campaign – highlight why this must be so.
The People’s Disaster Risk Reduction Network (PDRRN), an NGO that has been delivering humanitarian action in the Philippines for almost two decades now, offers a deep dive perspective on various types of Quick Response Funds that are helping local actors be in the driver’s seat again and could potentially reform the aid sector to be locally led.
Quick Response Funds
Quick Response Funds (QRFs) are budgetary allocations or standby funds for rapid assistance to areas affected by disasters and crises. They are usually replenished annually. There are varying scales of QRFs: some are organised by national governments, some by local networks, some by the UN and some by individual INGOs.
One of the biggest challenges in the sustainability of locally led humanitarian action is funding for local NGOs and actors to strengthen their technical and institutional capacity, expand/enhance their humanitarian protocols and systems, manage their risks and concerns, retain their qualified staff and support roster and then respond to an emergency. Local actors do not have the large reserves that INGOs and UN agencies enjoy, and often need to raise funds before launching a response. Local QRFs, which provide a variety of options and access to local actors, can fill this gap. This could be an entry point for other funding models to help local actors deliver aid effectively. Below are examples of QRFs that PDRRN has been engaged with.
Philippine government QRFs
In the Philippines, governments are required to allocate 5% of their annual revenue allotment – the total funding that a municipality, city, province or national government office receives from taxes and other income – for disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). Of this, 30% must go to QRFs, and 70% to preparedness work. Where the QRF has not been utilised in a given year, the savings go into a trust fund which can be used for general programmes after five years. However, where neighbouring towns, cities or provinces are impacted by disasters, by law they can request these funds as part of larger pooled funding. Technically, each government DRRM office includes representatives from civil society, the private sector, faith-based groups and academic institutions, all of which have voting rights and help shape the government’s final DRRM Plan and budget. Thus far no government office has given money directly to a local civil society or private sector organisation. However, local non-government actors like PDRRN have worked alongside government on joint assessments and planning, and at times have provided training for government responders. Based on its assessments and recommendations, PDRRN has secured government resources indirectly, e.g. affected communities needed shelter support and the government provided this based on PDRRN’s recommendations.
Local QRFs for non-government actors
A significant number of local development organisations in high-risk areas of the Philippines, including PDRRN, now engage in relief work in response to recurring disasters affecting their communities, such as Covid-19. With limited access to emergency funds from international actors, they get their support from their networks, although this is on a small scale. These organisations are commonly part of national networks with clear humanitarian programmes and maintain QRFs to enable them to undertake rapid assessments and provide initial life-saving humanitarian assistance.
One of these networks, the Humanitarian Response Consortium (HRC), comprises 12 local NGOs that have been responding to humanitarian crises in the Philippines since 2010. HRC implements responses as a consortium, not as individual organisations. There is a single line management system made up of staff and managers from different organisations. Resources are controlled through a single budget using a single system for processing, where one agency takes the lead in managing the response, including responsibility for funding. This is rotated among all members. Decision-making is devolved as much as possible, so that decisions are more responsive to changes in the context.
PDRRN currently coordinates the HRC. The QRF, which is managed by another member, was established in 2016 with a $40,000 donation from Oxfam. In 2018, the fund was increased to $50,000 with pooled resources from various donors. The QRF allows for a 72-hour turn-around time to respond. To date, it has leveraged a total of $1.6 million from various donors including Oxfam, UNICEF, Christian Aid, Latter-Day Saints of Charity (LDSC) and SEAOIL Foundation to respond to five emergencies, including several destructive typhoons and the ‘Marawi Siege’ in Mindanao.
Another local QRF, the Shared Aid Fund for Emergency Response (SAFER), is a collaborative partnership of three groups, the HRC, the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE NGO) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA)/CARITAS) Philippines. SAFER raises funds from local publics and the private sector to augment the resources of on-the-ground organisational partners of SAFER member groups working in disaster-affected areas, especially in poor, vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities.
In its first two years, funds generated by SAFER came mainly from friends, families and the social networks of founders and staff. Individual donations ranged from $2 to $200. As SAFER gained credibility with the responses it was able to mount, including to fires, typhoons and floods, private sector donations began, ranging from $1,000 to $20,000. Over the last two years, SAFER has supported eight local organisations in 11 emergency responses reaching 2,375 poor households, raising funds from private companies, diaspora groups, families and donors, who got to know SAFER from social media posts, internet searches and referrals from previous donors.
SAFER recognised the value of good marketing and communication and accountability to its supporters early on, and uses social media to report on the funds it has generated and where the money went through pictures, videos and donor reports. In 2021, it launched givinghero.app/safer to cast a wider net for donations and to educate the public about local solidarity, or the traditional Filipino concept of bayanihan. Although limited in scope, with annual funding of around $38,000, this mechanism of localising humanitarian response is working, is proving more responsive and needs to be promoted.
SAFER recently surveyed Filipino employees involved in its ‘giving hero’ programme, where employees donate time or money as part of their company’s corporate social responsibility contributions. Eighty-four percent of individual donors said they were more likely to give if a match was offered, and one in three said they would give a larger gift if matching was applied to their donation. Responding to these findings, SAFER is adjusting its donation portals and approaches for 2021 to attract more match funding from bigger organisations and companies and expand partnerships with those that are particularly supportive of giving and volunteering. Fifteen per cent of donations received by SAFER go on administration.
The Oxfam Emergency Response Fund
Over the last seven years, Oxfam has embedded a mechanism similar to a QRF, the Emergency Response Fund (ERF), in two consecutive multi-year DRR programmes in Asia-Pacific and Central America to support locally led responses to disasters. ERF grants range in size from $15,000 to $200,000. The fund prioritises small-scale, under-the-radar and forgotten emergencies. The ERF was designed to reduce bureaucracy around fund administration, and turn-around time for grant approval is between 12 hours and four days, with a half-page template for requests. According to research on the ERF, the reporting templates and mechanisms are among the simplest local actors have ever encountered, with final reports needing a maximum of three pages. That the ERF is part of a donor-supported programme shows that there are donors who are supportive of accountability mechanisms that are not solely based on lengthy monitoring and end-of-project reports.
The ERF has supported 15 local NGOs in 24 humanitarian responses in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nicaragua and Vanuatu. Across these responses, local actors demonstrated how swiftly they could reach isolated communities and how, by being first on the ground, they could help shape response options with input from affected populations. PDRRN was one of the actors that implemented an ERF response in Salcedo municipality.
ERF funds have been critical in facilitating preliminary set-up and assessment processes in humanitarian responses. The Sulawesi response in Indonesia in 2018–2019 was an $11.8 million response, to which the ERF contributed just $50,000. The timing of that contribution was strategic, however, because it enabled local partners to conduct rapid assessments. These assessments allowed response interventions to be co-designed with Oxfam, and were later used for public appeals and other resource mobilisation. Being first on the ground also meant that the local consortium, Jejaring Mitra Kemanusiaan (JMK), was able to build good relationships and trust with affected communities, helping them to effectively manage the response. Of the total budget, $2.4 million went to JMK to directly manage the second phase of the response.
Game changers in locally led humanitarian response
Humanitarian response organisations as a whole, and local NGOs in particular, are under-resourced compared to the scale of need. To compound the problem, this is a crowded field, with many groups and actors vying for media attention and citizen engagement, as well as funds and other resources. The funding landscape is changing, but it needs to change faster. There is a consensus among local actors that funding mechanisms like SAFER, government QRFs, country-based pooled funds (CBPFs), the Start Fund, Oxfam’s ERF, the UN’s CERF, DREF and others should not just be part of this change, but should lead the way in innovation and inclusion. This would stand in contrast to the current trend, where large donors launch fewer calls for proposals and concentrate larger amounts of funding in each call. Complex bid requirements that demand huge investments limit access by small and local CSOs, perpetuate a top-down approach and can be very disempowering.
Prepositioning funds before a response can also help reduce bureaucracy in the actual response. This is an area where QRFs can be game changers. We need more locally designed pooled funds managed at national and subnational levels, that are accessible and useful even at municipal to village levels. Organisations should be given autonomy to disburse funds based on local circumstances, needs and capacities, while adhering to standards of transparency and accountability. These QRFs should be complemented with multi-year capacity strengthening to help local actors increase their humanitarian capacity and systems. Current funding models are often highly centralised among large national NGOs, especially the foundations of media corporations and major companies such as the ABS-CBN Foundation, GMA Kapuso Foundation and those aligned with international NGOs. Funds should also be directed to credible national networks of local NGOs and actors who are agile and nimble, and have presence and operations across the country.
‘Support must be mobilised and enhanced for QRFs and pooled funding mechanisms designed and managed by local NGOs and actors, including making them channels for funds and resources of INGOs and other international donors,’ according to a national coordinator of a local NGO network. This effort to reform the humanitarian architecture and financial systems needs support and investment from everyone – local NGOs and actors, INGOs, donors and government – to make it truly locally led, effective and meaningful. There is much work to do, both for international and local actors, in supporting local QRFs and putting forward, not just words of encouragement, but also funding and resources.
Esteban ’Bong’ Masagca is the Executive Director of PDRRN. Janice Ian Manlutac is the Local Humanitarian Leadership Advisor for Oxfam America. Benedict Balderrama is the National Coordinator for Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies (PHILSSA).