The international tsunami response: showcase or circus?
by Caroline Nursey, Oxfam GB December 2005

A common practice amongst agencies seeking to improve their response to disaster is the ‘simulation exercise’, in which a fictitious but typical scenario is prepared about a disaster in ‘Country X’, and a group of practitioners is asked to mount a response. Readers may have their own experiences of these exercises. A colleague told me of one where, after incredible levels of activity and so-called coordination, a week after the disaster had struck, the response leader had still not boarded the hypothetical aeroplane to take them to the hypothetical site of the response.

The Indian Ocean tsunami could have been a case study for such an exercise:

  • Several million people were affected simultaneously, with no advance warning.
  • The disaster affected seven countries, leaving an estimated 280,000 people dead and two million displaced.
  • There were conflicts in two of the three-worst affected countries, and humanitarian access was limited.
  • The humanitarian community was already at its most stretched for years responding to a combination of disasters around the world.
  • And it was Christmas, and most headquarters staff were on holiday.

Imagine the likely outcome of such a scenario. There is a mad scramble to reach the scene, but governments block entry, visa applications are ‘pending’, supplies get stuck in customs and a staffing shortage means that some very inexperienced staff are on the ground. Conflicts escalate, affected people are forced to relocate and communities are split up. An incompetent response fails to stave off outbreaks of disease, there are media scandals about corruption keeping food aid from hungry people, channelling it to military forces instead, and funding is halted abruptly, forcing many agencies to pull out before they have barely started work. Wealthy governments drop their commitments, blaming the UN for incompetence, a UN sex exploitation scandal surfaces and the humanitarian community spends the next five years recovering from the media and public relations disaster. And, of course, the beneficiaries suffer.

In fact, this is not what happened. Indeed, far from a circus the tsunami was, I would argue, a showcase response. There were mistakes, of course; in the start-up phase, the coordination centre in Aceh ‘lost’ two Oxfam trucks carrying water equipment, and aircraft could not land at the airport because it was clogged by well-meaning representatives from what seemed like every agency in the world, coming to hand out their particular brand of chlorine tablet. In South India, there were 300 organisations in one district of Tamil Nadu alone. But these problems were overcome and the results have been better than any of us could have foreseen.

The response

No public health emergency occurred and, within days, the majority of people affected were getting food, water, sanitation, shelter and healthcare. Within a month, the emergency response phase geared to saving lives was completed, and the focus moved on to helping people recover their livelihoods and get children back to school. Plans for multi-year responses were designed, not just to help people back to where they were before, but to break out of the poverty that made them so vulnerable to disaster in the first place.

The UN CAP was fully funded, and publics around the world – from the wealthiest to the poorest nations – empathised and gave at unprecedented levels. In the UK, 80% of all adults donated something. This public generosity stimulated government giving, and a sort of bidding process drove up the ‘highest offer’. This generous funding gave agencies and governments enough stability to plan long-term, quality programmes that met Sphere minimum standards. The public endorsed the flexible use of funds to include indirectly affected people and prevention and preparedness work. Large agencies shared funds, and sought new and diverse alliances and partners with whom to work.

National governments responded immediately. Actions ranged from calling a state of emergency and welcoming help to waiving visa requirements and bringing massive national resources to bear, military and financial, to do the job themselves, drawing on support and technical expertise from the UN. Action was seen as an election issue. Affected people took charge of public spaces such as schools, stayed in their communities and demonstrated strong coping capacity. Beneficiaries and local agencies insisted on making their voices heard. Agencies advocated strongly for the rights of internally displaced people and on protection issues, and this had a tangible influence on government action. Accountability to beneficiaries became a ‘growth industry’.

The key issue: resources

Clearly, the tsunami was better resourced than the majority of humanitarian crises. Within two weeks of its launch, the UN flash appeal was 53%-funded by commitments or paid contributions. Some may feel the response was over-resourced, while others may claim that it matched the scale of need. The majority of the money from the general public was ‘new’ money that would not have been available had it not been for the tsunami, and therefore did not take funds from any other crisis. The same may not apply to funds from donor governments, and if the result of generosity in one region is increased suffering in another, then this should be challenged. That said, the goal should be to improve responses elsewhere to the point where they match the standards of the tsunami response.

Humanitarian agencies are accustomed to operating on a shoestring, and it was remarkable to see a situation where the necessary resources were clearly available, and quickly. We at Oxfam became a little light-headed as we watched the appeal funds mount, realised we could recruit who we wanted and only had to mention potential interest in a hovercraft on the BBC for people to offer to ship one out the next day. Two results of this level of resourcing are an unusually high level of competition; and an emphasis on accountability.


The abundance of funds led to an influx of agencies into some tsunami-affected areas, and there were instances where agencies competed over communities and beneficiaries. An Indian colleague related how his friend’s daughter had nearly been commandeered by an agency worker; ‘Where did you get the little girl?’, the staffer demanded to know. At the same time, competition had some healthy effects.

  • It drove up standards. For example, in South India initial hastily-constructed ‘sheds’ were replaced by standard houses with palm-leaf roofs, built to Sphere standards.
  • Partners had much more power to negotiate terms. For example, I know one colleague enjoyed a very polite presentation by a local partner who outlined the long-term commitment they wanted, while showing who else was supporting them, and explaining why they had chosen to come first to Oxfam to ask for support – the clear message being that if we could not commit, they could go elsewhere.
  • Beneficiaries were able to exercise choice. For example, in Sri Lanka a fisherman told a colleague that his community did not want their boats mended, nor did they want new ones like the ones they had before. Instead, they wanted fibreglass boats.
  • Beneficiaries could voice complaints. This happened at local government offices in Sri Lanka. While there was room for improvement in efficiency, the fact that there is a demand for action to resolve complaints can potentially improve quality.


The tsunami event has allowed us a glimpse of what it looks like when the givers and recipients of aid (Western publics and affected populations) are centre-stage and call the shots – putting pressure on the actors in the middle (governments and aid agencies) to do the job right. For more than 50 years, Western countries have committed themselves to a pact of mutual solidarity to alleviate suffering around the world. In reality, the fulfilment of this commitment is heavily dependent on political interests. In this response, we have seen the power ordinary citizens – both the giving public and recipient populations – can have in shaping and influencing that political interest, and ultimately demanding a decent response.

It is important not to overstate what has been achieved. This power is still nascent. Clearly, many of the individuals affected by the tsunami are still not satisfied; many remain in temporary accommodation, for example, and will do so for years. However, we must not discount the positive influence of increased visibility, and its potential to enhance the voice of affected people. With a concerted effort to realise this potential, we could improve accountability and facilitate a direct, compassionate understanding among Western publics of the plight of disaster-affected people. It could become the norm that the givers and receivers of aid exercise their power and demand that those in the middle – the governments and aid agencies entrusted with the response – deliver systematic, fair and professional responses, or risk being fired or voted out.

Critical readers may dismiss this argument as a simplistic market model; others may agree with it, but wonder how it is relevant to Darfur, to Northern Uganda or to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the case of the tsunami response, the main countries affected all have relatively effective governments and administrations with a long reach, resources and expertise of their own, large educated middle classes and strong civil societies. The foundations are already there on which to build the accountability to aid recipients that helps drive the quality of the response. Moreover, in conflicts, civil society often prioritises a political response, such as ending the war, over a humanitarian one.

While Darfur, Kitgum and Ituri are a world away from the tsunami response, the key issue of ‘missing stakeholders’ is still fundamental. Governments, UN agencies and NGOs can proclaim all they like that Darfur (for example) is a priority concern, but until individuals and communities in donor countries are engaged, and until beneficiaries can make themselves heard, none of these crises will ever be the number-one issue, there will not be the funding we need to deliver the programmes that people deserve and we will never be held to account to deliver a ‘showcase’ humanitarian response.

Showcase, not circus

The tsunami response is more showcase than circus, based simply on the facts of what has happened and the humanitarian disaster that has been averted. Depending on the lessons we apply now about adequate resourcing and accountability, it could come to be seen as a clear demonstration of what is possible. As such, it could mark a key step towards more accountable, better-quality responses – responses that elicit more pride than shame.

Caroline Nursey is International Director (Interim) at Oxfam GB. Her email address is: