Beneficiaries of projects run by CAFOD and partners Beneficiaries of projects run by CAFOD and partners Photo credit: Lucasz Cholewiak/ CAFOD
Humanitarian partnerships: reality lags behind the rhetoric
by Anne Street January 2015

Just over a year after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines important lessons need to be learnt about how international actors partner and work with national organisations. The Philippines has consid- erably more local and national capacity to manage disaster response than many countries in the region. It also has a great deal of experience in dealing with disasters. Despite this, the scale and nature of the typhoon, and the storm surge it triggered, was initially overwhelming.

In the weeks that followed, however, local and national humanitarian actors were also undermined by the international response. Despite being some of the earliest to respond to the emergency, many Filipino organisations faced huge challenges in delivering assis- tance. One national NGO, ECOWEB, noted: ‘We were able to mobilize some funding but it was not enough. We approached some big INGOs but they chose not to fund us. It took some time before we were able to raise enough funds to cover the transport of goods. However, nobody would fund us for the community organising and the cost of distribution that would ensure participation and reach to isolated communities’. Speaking at an ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment Side Event meeting in New York in June 2014, Nannette Antequisa, the Director of ECOWEB, neatly summed up some of the challenges that local organisations faced in delivering humanitarian aid after Typhoon Haiyan:

“Our long term partner, CREST Malaysia, and a new partner, Foodbank Singapore, were among those who immediately responded. However, although we had the relief goods, our first problem was where to store the goods. Fortunately we had connections in Cebu and a local businessman offered his warehouse at much reduced cost. Our next problem was how to distribute the goods so they could reach communities in the islands affected. We tapped the logistics support from the UN and government but it was not easy and caused much delay to our distribution.”

Nanette was speaking at an event to launch Missed Again: Making Space for Partnership in the Typhoon Haiyan Response,+Andy Featherstone and Carino Antequisa, Missed Again: Making Space for Partnership in the Typhoon Haiyan Response, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Tearfund and Action Aid, September 2014, a study commissioned by a group of five NGOs, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Action Aid and Tearfund, to assess the extent of partnership working in the aftermath of the typhoon. The research followed an earlier desk- based study, Missed Opportunities,+Ben Ramalingham, Bill Gray and Georgia Cerruti, Missed Opportunities: The Case for Strengthening National and Local Partnership Based Approaches to Humanitarian Action, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Tearfund and Action Aid, October 2013, which focused on the effectiveness of humanitarian partnerships in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Horn of Africa, Haiti and Pakistan. The Missed Again study sought to answer two questions: first, how has partnership increased the effectiveness of the humanitarian response?; and second, in what ways have national actors (government and national NGOs) been involved in the international humanitarian response in the Philippines?


Using the OECD-DAC evaluation criteria of relevance, efficiency, connectedness, effectiveness and coverage, the study found that humanitarian partnership can strengthen the contextual relevance of assistance, that partnerships can offer efficiencies and enable a more connected response, offering greater sustainability, and can deliver effective assistance. Against this, the findings also revealed limitations in the capacity of national NGOs which made it difficult to scale up partnerships.

The scale of the destruction caused by Haiyan challenged the response capacities of humanitarian actors in all parts of the system, from UN agencies, national and international NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement to the humanitarian donors that fund them. Many Filipino NGOs operational in the affected areas, as well as government capacity from barangay village level upwards, were hard hit, losing staff, family members, assets and infrastructure.

Pre-existing humanitarian networks played an important role in enabling member organisations to initiate joint approaches. Supported by Oxfam, the Humanitarian Resp- onse Consortium, formed a number of years prior to Haiyan, brought together five national NGOs with comple- mentary specialisms and strategic operations across all three major island groups in the Philippines. When Haiyan struck, Oxfam immediately linked up with one of the consortium members, A Single Drop of Water (ASDW), undertaking a joint needs assessment in the Tacloban area, and four days later had started a response. Drawing on Oxfam’s logistical experience and financial resources and ASDW’s knowledge of the Philippines water sector, the agencies identified the Leyte Metropolitan Water District as a partner, and were able to put in the necessary resources to enable staff to get back to work and re-establish services. Christian Aid supported nationwide disaster preparedness and response capacity across both development and humanitarian partners (CARRAT), which was able to rapidly initiate a response programme in the affected area. Although both networks relied to a large extent on international NGO funding for their work prior to Typhoon Haiyan, they approached the arrangement as a partnership, rather than a sub-contracting relationship.

Although national NGOs were among the earliest responders to the typhoon, as the response rolled out they played a relatively minor role compared to international NGOs, which generally had far greater access to funding and better logistics capacity, enabling them to work at significant scale. As a result the response was largely internationally led, coordinated and implemented. In many cases international NGOs de-prioritised partnerships, particularly in the initial months of the response, and assistance delivered through partnerships was modest compared to assistance directly delivered by international NGOs. A large number of Filipino NGOs either had to draw on their own limited resources and fundraise however they could, or had to wait for funding to trickle down the aid chain.

The Missed Again research found that affected com- munities in Leyte and Cebu related differently to international NGOs than national ones. They used the word ‘help’ to describe the support of international NGOs, but national organisations were described as ‘muiban namo’ (‘to journey with us’), signifying that a relationship is built up over time and is about more than just giving aid. In Visayas, several national NGOs interviewed considered that one of the key reasons for limited national capacity was that international organisations had done little to support capacity development or strengthen partnerships for response prior to November 2013.

Whilst the research identified some positive examples of good partnerships, overall it is clear that international NGOs and the wider humanitarian sector need to do a lot more. Greater investment is needed to support Filipino NGOs to build their capacity and increase preparedness for future emergencies. Donors also need to increase their direct funding for national capacity development and support national coordination mechanisms and strengthen the capacity of local government and civil society in the Philippines to respond. They need to ensure that timely funds are available directly to national organisations, both government and non-government, to enable them to respond at greater scale.

With the scale and frequency of disasters expected to increase globally, what President Benigno Aquino has called the ‘new normal’, the research raises important questions about the ability of partnerships to respond at scale to mega- disasters. If the international system is to meet its aspiration to place national actors at the centre of humanitarian response it still has a long way to go. The challenge for the international humanitarian system in the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 is to see contexts like the Philippines as places where the system must make real its aspirations to cede power and resources to affected people and national organisations. If emergency response cannot be locally and nationally led in the Philippines – a middle- income country with a strong civil society and a capable government – can it happen anywhere?

Anne Street is Head of Humanitarian Policy at CAFOD.