When a crisis hits, the main thing we hear about is what the international community is doing to help.  But how about what the people from the affected country are doing?  If you are affected by crisis, often the first, most visible, lifesaving and sometimes only response you will see is from people and organisations close at hand…..

For example:

-when the earthquake hit Haiti earlier this year, “many in the capital Port-au-Prince started picking away at shattered buildings with bare hands, sticks and hammers hoping to find loved-ones alive” – Reuters 2010

-in Bangladesh, when early-warning systems detect the threat of cyclones, the village elite pay boatmen to take people and assets to safer ground and mosques broadcast messages over the loudspeaker advising the community to evacuate.

At the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme we believe that no analysis of humanitarian assistance can be complete without taking into account this domestic humanitarian response, yet it is rarely, if ever, considered.  We wanted to understand this more and so in collaboration with Development Research and Training (DRT), carried out a study looking at domestic response in Uganda.

For me, one of the most striking findings comes from discussions we held with affected communities about how they rate the impact of the various responses (both international and domestic).  Bearing in mind, these communities had suffered a protracted conflict, they rated efforts to improve security most highly and crucially these come from largely domestic sources – the Ugandan government, local leaders that have helped in peace negotiations and men from affected communities volunteering to guard the population.  From what the communities said, they certainly perceive international actors to have greater capacity and to be more equitable, but interestingly, it seems the national government, and domestic civil society, do have a particularly important role to play when the level of international response is low – for example, at the onset of a drought before the threshold to appeal for international assistance is reached, or in very insecure environments which are no-go for most international actors.

It seems to me that perhaps a stronger and more effective humanitarian system can emerge where international and domestic actors respond cohesively and the comparative strengths of each are fully employed. Where states are weaker, international actors can step up.  Where the domestic system is stronger, international actors can take a less prominent role focusing their activities on specific areas of response.  ]

What will it take for such a system to emerge?  What would it look like?  Do we have the tools to easily learn about the various domestic responses and their value?  Is the humanitarian system dynamic enough so that the international response in each emergency context can be shaped by the domestic situation?

I believe this is certainly achievable but for me it involves dialogue between domestic and international actors in the preparedness phase, to map domestic capability and prepare a response.  One of the banks in Uganda commented that they respond to crises when they read about them in the newspaper, whereas they would prefer to meet needs collaboratively with other humanitarian actors, but just don’t know who to talk to.  By explaining humanitarian principles, standards, stakeholders and mechanisms in advance to domestic actors, such as banks, collaboration could be effectively achieved.  During the relief phase, international actors can take measures to ensure that domestic voices are heard and domestic efforts are not undermined.  As Paul Harvey, of Humanitarian Outcomes, writes, meetings can be held in local languages and organisations can strive to ensure they do not brush aside local authority figures but include them in decision-making processes.  If there is better documentation by domestic actors on what they do, this will provide evidence for how they can be involved in disaster response.