This edition of Humanitarian Exchange features articles on the response to the earthquake in Pakistan on 8 October 2005, documenting practical lessons and key issues from a range of agency, institutional and staff perspectives. The focus is on the response, capacity and viewpoint of local and national actors, and how these intersected with those of the international community.

An article by the Pakistan government’s Federal Relief Commission explores the key lessons of the disaster for the government agency charged with leading the overall response. As this and other articles highlight, humanitarian actors relied heavily on the capacity of the Pakistan army, with international military support, to overcome logistical challenges and reach isolated communities. The army’s involvement presented both opportunities and dilemmas for local and international humanitarian actors, particularly in terms of how humanitarian principles are applied and understood in a context where the state plays such a leading part in responding to immediate needs. The tensions experienced in Pakistan are not unique, and hopefully the articles published here will contribute to debates on civil–military relations, while reinforcing the importance of understanding the immediate and longer-term context in which humanitarian agencies operate.

An article by Sungi – a local NGO – illustrates how the response of international actors and the government also relied on the capacity of experienced national NGOs. Sungi’s advantage derived in part from its network of grassroots disaster management committees. Other key local players in the response included jihadi organisations, which used pre-existing structures to mobilise resources rapidly. Again, the engagement of these groups – some of whom are proscribed by the Pakistan government or the UN – raised difficult issues for international agencies.

The theme of individual and community capacity is explored in articles focusing on cash, shelter and local coping strategies, and the role of the media in improving disaster responses. These articles emphasise the importance of looking for opportunities to implement programmes that prioritise and build on people’s own capacities and their own understanding of their needs. They remind us that, in the endless drive to improve emergency response coordination and performance, commitment to ensuring that the people affected by emergencies receive timely and accurate information and can inform decisions taken by agencies is essential.

The need for humanitarian actors to listen to communities is further investigated by Nick Stockton in his end-piece article. Stockton engages with an earlier end-piece by Jan Egeland on OCHA’s approach to accountability, and argues that OCHA still has some way to go in putting those affected by disasters at the centre of its accountability practices and principles.

This edition also contains a range of general policy and practice articles focusing on government capacity in Zambia, the importance of land issues in northern Uganda, nutritional lessons from the Niger crisis in 2005, approaches to conducting research with children in conflict-affected settings and NGO collaboration through multi-agency evaluations. We hope you enjoy this issue of Humanitarian Exchange, and as always we welcome your feedback.

Issue 34 articles