The Grenfell Tower disaster in London: exploring parallels with international emergency response and recovery

December 3, 2018
John Plastow
Response to the Grenfell Tower fire.

The extent of the suffering caused by the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has rarely been experienced in the United Kingdom since the end of the Second World War. Since the end of the Second World War only four disasters in the UK have caused greater loss of life, and none since the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1986, in which 86 people died. Seventy-two people died, hundreds of families lost their homes and thousands more were traumatised. The indirect consequences, while harder to see, are no less real and enduring for communities in an area with some of the highest levels of socio-economic deprivation and inequality in England. The gravity of the disaster has put Grenfell very much in the spotlight in the UK. Alongside a major public inquiry into the causes of the disaster and the role of the fire service and local and central government in the response, several independent studies have looked at the part played by civil society organisations,  faith organisations and funding agencies. Terms of reference for the Grenfell Tower Enquiry (; Mind the Gap: One Year On – A Review of the Voluntary Sector Response (; British Red Cross, Harnessing the Power of Kindness for Communities in Crisis: Towards a More Effective Response to Emergencies in the UK; Institute for Voluntary Action Research, The Possible Not the Perfect: Learning from the Funder Response to  Emergencies ( 0Emergency%20responses%20report_Low%20Res.pdf). This analysis has been largely UK-centric. This paper seeks to locate Grenfell in its wider context by exploring parallels with emergency response and recovery internationally, highlighting challenges and achievements and the implications for organisations working in emergencies in the UK and elsewhere.


Many elements of the response were established in the first hours after the fire took hold early on the morning of Wednesday 14 June 2017. The blaze forced hundreds of families onto the streets of North Kensington. People either stayed with friends or took shelter in nearby buildings of locally based ‘voluntary’ organisations; a mix of secular and faith-based organisations, particularly churches and mosques. These centres did what they could to provide assistance, offering a safe space, comfort and refreshments in the absence of direction from the local authorities. For at least the first 72 hours, organisations with no background or training in emergency response were left largely to fend for themselves. Although more specialised actors have since come to the fore, these groups remain engaged, their status enhanced in an overall context where trust in external agencies has been seriously eroded, and they continue to play key roles in support of community recovery. One particularly notable feature of the response was its strong Muslim character: a large proportion of people affected were Muslim, and the fire took place during Ramadan. Muslim organisations both local to the community and external played a variety of important roles, providing appropriate food and clothing and faith-sensitive support, including around bereavement.

Lack of support for local actors

Despite their prominence, local groups have not generally been considered as strategic partners and have tended to receive more limited, project-based support. The second report from the Independent Grenfell Response Taskforce, published in March 2018, urged the local authority, Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council (KCBC), to ‘review its approach to partnership working with the local voluntary sector [and] move beyond the historical grant giving relationship … to co-produce a way forward’. The terms ‘voluntary organisation’ and ‘voluntary sector’ are commonly used in the UK to describe what in other contexts would be described as civil society organisations/civil society. Similarly, the Mind the Gap report by Muslim Aid highlights the absence of ‘meaningful partnerships with local actors’ on the part of larger, more experienced civil society organisations (CSOs), and notes the absence of proactive or systematic support to frontline local organisations. One exception is the London Funders network, which provided an initial allocation of over £1 million to 100 organisations, followed by a further £870,000 in ‘Anchor Core Cost Funding’ to 11 key organisations in 2017. ‘Anchor Core Cost Funds’ from London Funders, a coalition of trusts and foundations supporting the response to the Grenfell disaster, were given to the following: Al Manaar Mosque, Clement James Centre, Delgano Centre, Grenfell United Family Association, Harrow Club, Latymer Community Church, Rugby Portobello Trust, Tabernacle Centre and Westway Trust, as well as three other infrastructure organisations: Kensington and Chelsea Social Council, Kensington and Chelsea Voluntary Centre and Migrants Organise (http:// Such funding has subsequently largely dried up.

Concerns around a lack of support for local actors have gained international prominence following the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and the Grand Bargain commitment to channel 25% of aid funding ‘as directly as possible’ to local actors by 2020. According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service (FTS), local and national responders directly received just 2% of international humanitarian assistance in 2016, mostly to government bodies, with CSOs receiving just 0.3%. Evidence suggests that there remains more intent than substantive progress on this front internationally. The 2018 progress report on the Grand Bargain found that this workstream was one of two to have shown the least progress to date. It is revealing but perhaps not surprising that these dynamics were evident in the UK around the Grenfell response.

In the weeks and months after the fire, there has been a progressive strengthening and growing prominence of community-based organisations. Some, such as Grenfell United, which represents households from the Tower, are new, while other pre-existing groups such as the Lancaster West Residents Association have gained more visibility. KCBC has been heavily criticised for a lack of empathy with the community in North Kensington. National CSOs were also slow to engage. In its own post-Grenfell report, the Red Cross acknowledged that ‘it took us too long to reach out to grassroots groups’. This is at odds with what is now a mainstream focus on participation and accountability to affected populations. These underpinning principles also appear at odds with the dominant discourse and guidance in the formal UK emergency response, which prioritises a command and control culture in its handling of emergencies.


There was also a notable lack of coordination from the local authorities, particularly in the first days of the response. Following criticism, leadership of the response was transferred from KCBC to a new Grenfell Fire Response Team under the leadership of Chief Executives from other London Boroughs and involving the emergency services, the British Red Cross and staff from central and local government. Although efforts were made to be more proactive, outreach and engagement remained limited. Local organisations reported either not being invited to coordination meetings or struggling to get in, and those that did attend were often able to do little more than state their names and organisations. Constructive dialogue was hampered by growing anger among residents, who dominated early meetings with the authorities.

Within civil society there was uncertainty as to who should lead. Local organisations expected KCBC to come forward. The local CSO umbrella body, the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council, held back after initially receiving assurances that KCBC would act, and only held a first meeting of local actors some ten days or so after the fire. Some were looking to the Red Cross to lead the response, but, while senior staff on the ground considered moving, the organisation felt that it did not have the legitimacy to convene others in a context with which it was unfamiliar.

Again, there are clear similarities with the strengths and weaknesses of coordination within the international humanitarian system. There is no shortage of coordinated action in large-scale international emergencies, with the UN-led cluster system the most prominent manifestation. A major criticism levelled at approaches to coordination, including in recent disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan, has been the tendency of outsiders to create parallel structures which are not facilitative of local engagement. This was highlighted in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Operational Peer Review of the Haiyan response, which noted that ‘national actors admitted to feeling overwhelmed and pushed aside’.

The role of cash transfers

Another key area of learning has been around in-kind assistance and cash. The British public and businesses contributed generously. Centres were inundated with food, water, clothing and sanitary products in volumes that far outstripped demand, creating a long-term logistical challenge. A system for distributing cash grants using funds donated by the public was developed with oversight from the Charity Commission and implemented by local CSOs with expertise in this area. The system was managed jointly by the locally based Rugby Portobello Trust and the London Emergency Trust (LET), set up following the Paris terror attack in December 2015 to provide a mechanism to channel funds to victims of attacks in the UK. More than £20 million has been distributed to bereaved families and to people injured or made homeless by the fire.

The successful establishment of the cash distribution system mirrors a growing body of positive experience, evidence and learning See for example the first State of the World’s Cash report, Cash Learning Programme (CaLP), 2018 ( from multiple emergencies around the world that attests to the appropriateness of cash assistance, which has grown significantly, from 2.5% of all humanitarian assistance in 2015 to 10% in 2016.

Funding mechanisms

Several aspects of donor funding were very positive, particularly given the lack of experience of funding major disasters in the UK. The speed with which funds were made available to local actors by London Funders was commendable, as was the lack of bureaucracy in releasing and managing these funds. Core funding was also provided. Given the challenges associated with providing flexible and timely funding in international emergency responses, and the time it has taken to establish rapid funding mechanisms such as the START Network’s START Fund, the suite of measures put in place by this set of UK donors is impressive.

Strengthening synergies with international action

While much of what happened around Grenfell Tower was atypical of disasters in the UK, there are grounds to believe that a combination of increased vulnerability to violent attacks, the effects of climate change and the risks associated with modern life are making complex disasters more likely. Given this, it makes sense for the UK to invest more in learning from other contexts where these dynamics are more frequently in play. As this article shows, the similarities between issues that arose in North Kensington and key challenges and opportunities in other international contexts are striking. This suggests that there is value in ensuring crossover of expertise in organisations engaged in emergency work in the UK and internationally.

The UK and London are home to a wealth of organisations with expertise in emergency preparedness, response and recovery. This collective experience was not brought to bear around Grenfell. The lack of capacity for emergency response in mainstream UK churches illustrates this well. Both Anglican and Catholic churches have very strong, partner-oriented international sister organisations with considerable expertise, but with little or no means of engaging in the UK. The British Red Cross also seemed not to act on relevant experience from other contexts with which its staff working on international responses will be familiar. Other organisations with a significant footprint in the UK and major international emergency expertise have not chosen to engage in this area of work domestically, with the notable exception of Muslim agencies. This included the establishment of the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit (GMRU), a coordinating body for some of the largest UK-based Muslim agencies. It is understandable that organisations need to make strategic choices, but equally in an increasingly interconnected world the decision not to extend a core mandate to disasters in the developed world context appears both conceptually questionable and practically inefficient.

The Grenfell crisis should encourage act as a wake-up call to a range of actors to question assumptions about their capacity to effectively engage in complex emergencies in the UK. It might be tempting to see this as a one-off, either because of the unusual severity and difficulty of the response or because the lead actor, the KCBC, was so exceptionally poor. On both counts this feels complacent, first because national and global trends suggest that long-term and complex emergencies are likely to become more frequent, and second because it is clear from other contexts that the flaws displayed in the Grenfell response echo failings elsewhere in the world. The similarities between the Grenfell response and international experience and the limited range of expertise and evidence of weak practice when it comes to more complex emergencies highlight the benefits that can be gained through greater alignment of effort and analysis in what increasingly feels like an artificial divide in emergency response thinking and practice between so-called ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ contexts. Conventional practice has seen the transfer of financial and human resources from the latter to the former. The Grenfell experience reinforces both the need for important specificities to be addressed by appropriate local and national actors but at the same time for there to be greater openness on the part of those undertaking emergency response and recovery in the ‘developed’ world to draw upon the rich seams of relevant learning and experience from around the globe.


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