What Peru can teach us about a new approach to humanitarian aid

by IFRC Secretary General, Elhadj As Sy | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Wednesday, 24 May 2017 11:10 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Elhadj As Sy is the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and is leading the Red Cross delegation to the fifth Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico.


It rains in northern Peru. Not as much as in other parts of the country, but there is a clear wet season. This year was different. Ten times the usual amount of rain fell during the first few months of the year, triggering the worst disaster to affect the country in decades.

The result of an anomaly known as a “coastal El Niño”, the heavy rains swelled rivers and caused landslides. Walls of mud and water rolled down hillsides, swallowing everything in their path. In some areas, the disaster was so devastating that it permanently changed the landscape.

More than 130 people died, and well over 1.2 were made homeless or affected in some way. In all, the disaster caused more than US ${esc.dollar}3 billion in damages, and, according to the government, rebuilding may cost triple that.

My colleagues in the region describe this disaster as unparalleled – something they have never seen before in Peru in decades of disaster response experience. But despite that, the disaster received only fleeting attention from much of the world’s media, and appeals for financing the relief and recovery efforts have gone largely unanswered.

The truth is that natural disasters should be a major concern for all of us. In 2016, 445 million were affected by floods, storms, earthquakes and droughts. The World Bank estimates that each year, disasters push 24 million people – equivalent to the combined population of Guatemala and Honduras – into poverty.

So what is the answer? More resources for disaster response must be part of the answer. But that alone isn’t enough.

We need to be much smarter in how we use our resources. A system that waits for a disaster instead of doing what it can to prevent or minimize its impact is fundamentally inappropriate. More investment and energy need to go towards reducing the risks and vulnerabilities that are exploited by natural hazards. The response can be as simple as reinforcing flood-prone riverbanks, or establishing early warning systems that give communities time to prepare or flee.

That’s why IFRC is supporting the 1BC - a global initiative to build new partnerships to support stronger, more resilient communities. We want partners and people everywhere to focus as much on reducing vulnerability tomorrow as they do on responding to needs today.

Even in situations when a hazard cannot be avoided, we can intervene earlier and reduce its impact. For example, the Red Cross has been working with the German Government on an approach that we call “forecast-based financing”. Under this approach, humanitarian funding is released based on agreed scientific predictions such as meteorological information. Funds go to activities designed to reduce the risk of a particular hazard turning into a disaster, and to ensure that people are informed and ready to act, if and when need be. So, in the case of a situation like the one in Peru, we might hope to trigger community-level actions when rivers began to rise, and not once they have burst their banks.

But reform needs to go beyond when and how we spend resources. We also need to change where those resources are spent, and by whom. In disasters like the one in Peru, or Haiti following Hurricane Mathew, or Colombia following the Mocoa landslide, the absence of international support didn’t mean that people were left with nothing. In each crisis, local actors – including the local Red Cross – rushed to the scene. This is true for any emergency of any kind anywhere in the world. The first to respond is always a neighbour, or a local organization.

Despite this, the global humanitarian model remains tilted too far towards international response. Very little funding is channelled directly to local organizations for them to use as they see fit. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more effective to invest in those actors that are already there?

Stronger local humanitarian capacity will ensure more efficient and cost-effective humanitarian response. But even more importantly, strong local humanitarian actors, by virtue of their permanent presence, can help communities address their vulnerabilities, reduce the risks they face, and become more resilient to future threats.