The future of humanitarian response is local

The COVID-19 ‘stress test’ clearly demonstrated the need for a truly locally-led international humanitarian system.

Volunteers put masks they produced in boxes at Turkish Red Crescent Community Center in Hatay, Turkey on August 20, 2020. [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images] (Anadolu)

A little over a year ago, the director-general of the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Many things have changed for all of us since then. I have seen for myself the burdens families across the Middle East have faced, and the extraordinary courage medical personnel and volunteers demonstrated in combating this deadly disease.

At the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), we see the first anniversary of the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months and apply what we have learned to better respond to the challenges we will undoubtedly face in the year ahead.

In many settings, it has been volunteers, the foundation stone of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, who have stepped up to help those in need in the first year of this crisis, with public authorities learning to further appreciate their trusted access to hard-to-reach communities.

After the March 18 Algeria earthquake, for example, Algerian Red Crescent volunteers and first aiders reached remote villages and communities affected by the disaster within 15 minutes. These volunteers were able to reach those in need so quickly because they come from those very same communities. They had been trained and equipped and provided with personal protective equipment as they must assume everyone they assist is COVID positive. This is what local action looks like to us.

We are a global movement born on the field and sculpted by many crises, of which the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest. In this past year, as many retreated to their homes in lockdowns across the region, our volunteers and front-line responders were in the streets taking care of the sick and delivering assistance. Our volunteers have actually increased during this period.

However, the COVID-19 “stress test” has also brought to light the need for further investment in volunteer protection, management, and support systems. In many countries, the struggles faced by volunteers were compounded by the pandemic’s impact on global supply chains, and by sanctions. In Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, for instance, like many actors, we struggled to procure sufficient personal protective equipment for our first responders and volunteers.

The implementation of fixes, including the introduction of insurance schemes and an increase in funding, has started. But for these efforts to have a real impact, they need to be sustained in a manner that reflects the importance and centrality of volunteers in humanitarian response efforts. It is only with their help that our movement has been able to scale-up staffing in call centres, mobile teams, and ambulances in response to the pandemic.

Beyond these logistical challenges, the sheer scale of our COVID-19 response has, for me at least, offered a glimpse of what we can achieve if we build a truly locally-led international humanitarian system.

Despite the widespread recognition of the need for locally-driven responses across the sector, funding patterns have remained very centralised, highly earmarked, and inflexible to our new COVID realities. This has restricted our ability to allocate resources to those most in need.

Locally-driven national planning, which prioritises local needs and concerns rather than the agendas of outside actors, is needed more than ever amid a pandemic. Yet we continue to observe donors attaching unrealistic time and geographic restrictions to their contributions incongruent with the realities and challenges of many countries.

The principles long espoused by the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative and the Grand Bargain, such as true localisation, principled coherent donor action, un-earmarked and predictable funding, and standardised reporting, need to be fully accepted and truly implemented by all donors.

When COVID-19 hit, IFRC put at the centre of its global response the locally driven, country-specific response plans created by its National Societies. This led to many domestic response plans, supported internationally by a single IFRC global emergency appeal and plan that constantly adjusts to the shifting needs of countries and local communities.

This model, driven by local actors and needs, and calling on international support and expertise where needed, is an improved way forward. This, of course, requires patience, trust and humility on both sides. But if the last year has taught us anything, it is the extent to which the reach of major humanitarian actors is underpinned by local volunteers and local communities. Our friends and colleagues in the Algerian Red Crescent offer just one example of the future of preparedness and response we must build together.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.