When the tsunami struck, humanitarian agencies were confronted with an unprecedented challenge: a major disaster in multiple locations across numerous countries, some already severely affected by conflict. As well as the huge loss of life, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, millions lost their means of earning a living, and, in many places, the destruction of infrastructure was almost total. Humanitarian agencies were given more donations than they had ever before received for a single emergency. There was a massive responsibility to spend it wisely and transparently.
Oxfam responded to this challenge by setting up a separate charity, the Oxfam International Tsunami Fund (see page 4), to manage the response and ensure that funds received by all the Oxfam affiliates were allocated in a coordinated and transparent way.
Because of our extensive network of local partners, and our own disaster response capacity, we were able to launch an immediate and effective emergency relief operation across seven affected countries. Where we did not have partners, in Aceh or the Maldives, for example, we rapidly deployed Oxfam operational staff. Indeed, the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC)* praised Oxfam for its ability to deploy experienced staff rapidly in the event of major emergencies. In most locations, this delivery of relief supplies was accompanied by the replacement of lost assets, such as fishing boats or agricultural tools, and cash-for-work interventions, where affected people were paid to clean up their communities and restore infrastructure like wells, drainage ditches and roads.
At all stages of the operation, Oxfam strove to abide by and promote the use of internationallyrecognized minimum standards such as the Red Cross Code of Conduct and Sphere standards.
Lobbying governments and international bodies is one of our great strengths and in the early stages of the tsunami response, we demanded that governments of industrialized countries pledge new money for the recovery effort, rather than diverting previously promised funds; we called for the reconstruction to leave affected communities in a stronger position than they were in before the disaster.
As the response progressed, we changed our approach and focused more on advocating with the governments of the affected countries to ensure that local issues - such as land rights, unhindered access to affected communities or equal treatment for marginalized or minority groups - were tackled.
As we embarked on this massive undertaking, we were aware that our response in each country would vary according to the differing needs of the populations, local factors such as access to affected communities and the capacity of local partners. Given the scale of the disaster and the quantity of money we had, we were clear that we would be planning a response that would address not only immediate humanitarian needs, but also longer-term development issues. Our ultimate aim was to strengthen the ability of affected people to control their own future and respond to future crises. It was vital that in delivering assistance we did not deepen the dependency of people on outside help, and in most cases we achieved this.
As is usual with Oxfam programs, our approach is, wherever possible, to work through partner organizations that are more likely to understand their local contexts. While assisting affected people, we have also worked with these organizations to strengthen their knowledge base and capacity to better serve their communities in the long term.
Oxfam believes that programs are more likely to be successful and sustainable if affected communities take ownership of them. We strove to involve beneficiaries in the design and implementation of projects, from the construction of houses to the location of communal latrines; from the membership of livelihoods groups to learning to manage mangrove plantations. Wherever possible, Oxfam and its partners have trained people to maintain facilities after the program ends.
A failure to utilize local capacities was identified by a number of external evaluations as a key weakness of the overall tsunami response. However, given its underlying philosophy, this was an area where Oxfam did well. Indeed, we only implemented programs directly where partners did not have the capacity to meet the needs of the affected population or where we had no local partners. Oxfam was praised by the TEC evaluation for the NGO support network it developed in Aceh with a view to putting local people at the heart of the response.