Funding the frontline: How an Oxfam Emergency Response Fund facilitated local humanitarian action

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From 2014 to 2020 Oxfam embedded an Emergency Response Fund (ERF) in its multiyear disaster risk reduction programs in Asia-Pacific and Central America. The Oxfam ERF was designed as a flexible funding mechanism to prioritize small-scale, under-the-radar, and forgotten emergencies and help local actors respond to and mitigate the impacts of disasters in their communities. ERF grants totaling US$1.9 million were disbursed and supported 24 small-scale responses led by 15 local organizations in nine countries. The ERF, through the support of a donor who values local leadership, helped local actors shape humanitarian responses, and the simplicity of fund administration unlocked creativity and delivered speed without compromising the quality and accountability of humanitarian aid.


Historically, humanitarian responses have often taken the form of large-scale interventions, which, it is assumed, will require direct implementation by international and multilateral institutions. Local actors, despite being the first responders on the ground, have long lacked access to the resources and decision-making power they need to lead in the delivery of aid in their communities. Among the biggest challenges in providing effective response by local actors is access to funding. In humanitarian action, even if the mobilization of funds, technologies, and process support is global, an effective response needs to be context specific, based on a deep understanding and appreciation of community situations, needs and capacities. Local humanitarian leadership (LHL) does not mean that the response involves only local actors, with no outside support. It means that local actors, such as local and national governments and civil society organizations, lead the response in collaboration with external actors, including international organizations (Masagca et al., 2021).

From 2014 to 2020, Oxfam America embedded an Emergency Response Fund (ERF) in three projects in donor-funded, multiyear disaster risk reduction (DRR) programs in Asia-Pacific and Central America. This research examines the viability of the ERF in enabling more direct funding to local actors so they can better prepare and shape their own response actions when disasters caused by natural hazards strike (as currently designed, it is not applicable in certain contexts such as large-scale humanitarian emergencies and conflict situations). The research gathered evidence from reports, proposal documents, evaluations, and select key informant interviews on whether and how the ERF helped Oxfam country teams and local actors gain access to the resources needed to respond rapidly and effectively to shocks. It also assessed whether the ERF helped local actors play a greater strategic decision-making role, design the response, and lead implementation.

Research results showed that the ERF supported LHL, allowed fund recipients to respond rapidly, especially to politically sensitive disasters, and supported underfunded phases of emergency response. Both Oxfam staff and local actors who were interviewed in the research credited the ERF with leveraging local capacity, providing opportunities to innovate, and preventing program losses in the event of disasters. Across the 24 humanitarian responses that the ERF supported, local actors demonstrated that they could swiftly reach isolated communities and, by being first on the ground, help shape response options with input from the affected populations. Backed by ERF funding, local actors also leveraged additional resources to scale up these responses and put a spotlight on forgotten emergencies.
Direct funding to local actors is one of the major goals of a truly transformed and effective humanitarian system. Although traditional donors suffer from limitations—such as lack of a legal presence in a country and lack of capacity to vet multiple contracts in certain geographies—all local actors who participated in this research said these limitations should not be used as a reason to exclude locals from accessing funds to carry out their humanitarian work.
Nonetheless, even in such cases, changes are needed, especially with regard to fund administration and grant management. Such changes must include power sharing and the provision of overhead costs. Local actors see the need to press Oxfam and other international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), the United Nations and other international actors to consider terms of engagement that are more favorable to the local actors. This is particularly relevant when it comes to consortium-type arrangements with big donors.

Helping donors understand the need for local humanitarianism can be fast tracked if international actors like Oxfam, working side by side with local actors, purposely provide options and solutions to remove barriers to direct funding to local actors. This also includes introducing local actors directly to donors, highlighting and crediting their work in every response, and nurturing years of a relationship built on trust and evidence-based learning,According to respondents, the application and reporting templates for ERF grants were among the simplest that local actors in this research had ever seen, yet they did not detract from the high level of quality and accountability that humanitarian responses demand. Quite the opposite: they resulted in speedy decision making and facilitated a wealth of innovative local solutions that helped reduce the suffering of affected communities. This finding shows that compliance could be streamlined and addressed more creatively without diluting accountability and transparency.

There is a consensus among respondents that the funding landscape is changing and that funding mechanisms like ERFs should not be the exception but the norm. ERFs and other types of emergency funding reviewed in this research—designed for, and ideally in consultation with, local actors—should be multiplied and scaled up in contrast to the current trend, in which big donors launch fewer calls for proposals and concentrate larger amounts of funding in each call.

Humanitarian actors in general could also explore opening new funding streams such as crowdfunding, local actors outsourcing other services where possible, such as procurement of supplies, and adopting other non-traditional methods of resource mobilization. There is also the emergence of local pooled funds and community philanthropies. Local actors see the need for INGOs to change and have identified focus areas for collaboration so that together they can shape the humanitarian system and make it more effective in delivering aid.

Research respondents said that the ERF process can nonetheless be improved. Both Oxfam staff and partners strongly suggest designing ERFs that could eventually be managed directly by local actors and handed over to a network of local organizations. In the meantime, immediate changes could include letting local actors apply for ERF grants directly in the new cycle of the Oxfam DRR program and negotiate their terms.

Research findings also showed that ERF-type funding should be complemented with strong capacity sharing and indirect cost recovery to allow local and national organizations to continually develop and sustain their organizations beyond project-based implementation. The Oxfam DRR ERF is part of a donor-supported grant. It is important to note that there are donors that are supporting locally led responses and who are willing to invest in multiyear programs to help local organizations strengthen their humanitarian capacity and systems. The donor supporting the ERF grant is open to learning and with each iteration of the cycle of the programs it supported, including the Oxfam DRR ERF, has provided built-in improvements to make it more effective. The same donor is influencing other donors to support similar mechanisms.

Another flexible funding mechanism, country-based pooled funds (CBPFs), is a potential game changer when it comes to scaling up locally led humanitarian action because it focuses on the humanitarian-development-peace nexus and offers flexibility to local agencies. Research participants referenced these benefits.
A review of similar funding mechanisms shows that ERF-type funding provides more decisionmaking power to local actors and gives more mileage for the money. Primary data from research respondents confirmed the three benefits listed below from a review of similar funding mechanisms:

  1. Local actors bring in pre-positioned relationships, resources, and local knowledge, giving them an advantage in targeting the most vulnerable and isolated, even in areas where there are mobility restrictions, as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  2. They can power-map key stakeholders and navigate the complexities of governance and other relationships on the ground. This helps them make decisions, negotiate better with or on behalf of affected communities, and match and collate other resources, making the sum bigger than the parts (Vera and Vera, 2020). With the ERF, leveraging additional funds was among the key achievements of local actors.

  3. Local actors need not be humanitarian agencies to respond to a crisis. The majority of local actors who implemented ERF-supported responses were doing development work, which in fact helped them provide more sustainable response options linked to development priorities that addressed the underlying causes of risk and vulnerabilities (De Dios et al., 2017).

Finally, the following recommendations from the research findings apply to the wider humanitarian sector and call for addressing key challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. They are also meant to help improve the new phase of the Oxfam DRR ERF.

• Address the challenge of transboundary disaster management. Transboundary governance and challenges such as drought, freshwater management, forest fires, refugee crises, and pandemics affecting multiple countries require innovations in social and environmental management, including new forms of multistate governance and disaster management. Tools for planning, preparedness, and assessment for targeting the most vulnerable could be agreed upon at a regional level to reduce redundancies and optimize resources. Regions should have a built-in standby agreement for a regional response involving disaster preparedness, governance programs, and funding.

• Explore anticipatory finance. The shift from disaster relief to DRR requires more long-term and less reactive planning. Anticipatory finance is a funding mechanism that provides financing to reduce disaster risk and improve resilience by disbursing cash grants, insurance coverage, or access to loans before the impact of a humanitarian crisis or extreme weather event (Oxfam in the Philippines, 2020a). Anticipatory finance could, for example, help a farmer prepare better for drought or flooding. A Start Network innovation using smart-data early warning systems allows humanitarians to be better prepared by quantifying risks in advance of crises or disasters, pre-positioning funds, and releasing them according to preagreed protocols. Another example of anticipatory finance is the B-READY project in the Philippines. 2 Its pre-disaster cash transfer component and informed preparedness planning give communities the time and resources necessary to protect themselves and minimize damage to livelihoods, infrastructure, and well-being (Manlutac et al., 2020).

• Rethink the development-humanitarian divide. Local actors suggested looking at humanitarian actions within the development framework and not the other way around. This approach means that local implementing partners can be primarily development NGOs with embedded humanitarian capabilities. This will help prevent disasters from hampering communities’ development—a chronic issue. It could also provide a more inclusive environment for women’s rights organizations or gender interest organizations, whose work is often deeply rooted in development issues.

• Rethink layered risks and hazards and local emergencies. All countries in the 2020– 2023 cycle of the Oxfam DRR programs are among the top 10 most disaster-prone countries in the world, with many communities lacking the resources or power to address the underlying causes of disaster. To manage fund allotment, ERF guidelines should revisit protocols and scenarios for countries and situations with multiple hazards and layered risks.
Research participants recommended earmarking a small portion of funds—US$15,000– 30,000 per event—to ensure responses to small local emergencies where communities may not be able to leverage additional funding because of their isolation and small size.

• Include learning. Other funding mechanisms reviewed included a purposive learning agenda and learning exchanges among grantees. This area was a missed opportunity in the Oxfam ERF. In the few instances when learning exchanges did happen, they yielded significant improvements in practice and savings for humanitarian actions. Learning approaches should be included in the Oxfam ERF and other similar funding mechanisms.

• Fund women’s rights organizations (WROs) and gender interest organizations (GIOs) directly. Lack of direct funding to WROs and GIOs was seen as a major gap in the disbursement of ERF funds. Although this research was not able to make definitive conclusions on how best to do so, suggestions included the following: (1) incorporate this issue into the humanitarian sector’s research agenda; (2) require the participation of WROs or GIOs in all responses; (3) provide capacity-strengthening support to help WROs and GIOs effectively engage in humanitarian responses; and (4) allot a percentage of any ERF funds for WROs and GIOs across all responses.

This research discusses the changing roles of Oxfam, other INGOs, and local actors. Local actors also see the need for themselves to change, and they have identified key areas in which to focus their efforts, including investing in knowledge management and monitoring and accountability systems. Local actors interviewed also want to start computing their own ICR. Lastly, by taking responsibility for the visibility of their own work, local actors could contribute to thought leadership and organically transform the humanitarian system and sector to be locally led.