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A sea of change in the Philippines: local groups take charge in emergencies

Creating a more just and effective system of humanitarian response means helping local and national organizations step to the forefront.

When armed fighters laid siege to the city of Marawi, the Philippines, in 2017, hundreds of thousands of civilians fled for their lives. Many abandoned everything they owned, and in the clashes that followed, their neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and dust.

It’s been many months since the exodus, but for people displaced by the fighting, the pain is fresh.  When a visitor toured the camps near Marawi, they told stories of their flight and of the precious things they left behind.

“All my memories were left there,” said a young mother who recently delivered a baby in a tent camp. She cried as she talked about leaving home. “My parents were buried there.”

Yet, even as they rushed to safety, some took on a dangerous, life-saving task. “Many Muslims worked hard to protect their Christian friends and neighbors. They gave them places to hide and helped them get through checkpoints so they could escape the city,” said another mother. “For us,” she added, “it’s all the same if people are Muslim or Christian.”

Noraisah Arumpac, who fled Marawi, the Philippines, in 2017 helps her daughter with homework. The plywood that reinforces her family’s tent was provided by Humanitarian Response Consortium. “HRC was a great help. They went from tent to tent to talk to us. They gave us everything we needed.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Giving a boost to local groups

In a crisis, the urge to help your neighbor and your community is a powerful one, which is one reason local aid agencies can be so effective in emergencies. Not only are they often deeply committed to the communities they serve—their proximity enables them to act fast, and their understanding of the context can facilitate aid delivery in countless ways. But NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in poor countries struggle for resources, and the grants they receive from international sources often consign them to bit parts in emergencies, with little role in shaping the work they’re paid to carry out.

That’s wrong in every way, and Oxfam is trying to address the problem. We are helping lead a worldwide initiative to shift power, skills, and funds from international to strong local and national actors, and the Philippines has been a particular focus.

In 2015, Oxfam began working with Christian Aid and Tearfund on a three-year pilot project known as Financial Enablers, or FEP, to help Filipino organizations (organized into seven consortia) boost their capacity for humanitarian response and preparedness. The goal was more far-reaching than simply to build on skills: it was to strengthen leadership, so participants were encouraged to take charge from the start. Each consortium took on the responsibility of devising its own capacity-strengthening plan, for example, and the FEP followed its lead, issuing grants to make that plan a reality. Less experienced consortia used the money for basic trainings in emergency response, while a more seasoned group known as the Humanitarian Response Consortium (HRC) used it to create a quick-response fund, and to stock three warehouses with equipment and supplies.

A legal aid clinic near Marawi. “People who have lost everything have also lost their legal identities… They can’t access benefits they need, and they can be targeted with harassment and even violence.”-- Norman Golong of IDEALS, HRC’s legal aid organization and an Oxfam partner. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

An important milestone

As Oxfam readied its response to the Marawi crisis, the HRC announced it was launching a needs assessment—the critical first step in humanitarian response—and asked if Oxfam would like to support its intervention. In the effort to strengthen local leadership, it was a milestone: rather than Oxfam asking local groups to participate in our response, a highly capable local organization was taking the lead and inviting Oxfam to join in.

“In the space of six months, HRC twice led the way on emergency response,” said Rhoda Avila, Oxfam’s humanitarian manager in the Philippines. “This represents a significant transition, and we are really pleased.”

With help from its quick-response fund, HRC immediately canvassed the displaced families and learned about their most pressing needs. Once the team had solid information, it was able to cast a wider net for resources, and before long they had distributed essentials like plywood for tent flooring, hygiene kits, and kitchen utensils; set up communal kitchens and water and sanitation facilities; and begun handling sewage sludge disposal. HRC includes a legal aid organization, which hosted a radio show during the emergency to educate people about their rights, and offered clinics to help displaced people secure identification papers.

“HRC was a great help,” said Noraisah Arumpac, a mother who now lives in a tent camp. “They went from tent to tent to talk to us. They gave us everything we needed and made our lives easier.”

The consortium was not only able to move fast and create a comprehensive response; thanks to local staffers, its work built on knowledge of the local culture.

“I’m from Mindanao, so I understand some of the traditions and culture of the communities we’re serving, and I share their religion,” said Zahara Ibrahim, a hygiene promoter for HRC in the camps outside Marawi. “I find that people are more interested in talking about hygiene if I introduce it by reading verses from the Koran about cleanliness.”

Ivanhoe Arcilla, emergencies official in the town of Virac, Catanduanes, worked with HRC on the response to a deadly typhoon in 2016. “When HRC came, it was so timely. They showed up right after the typhoon. They called me and the next day they were here, and they immediately began an assessment and distributions.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

“The vision of the FEP is of strong, confident local organizations that work together to carry out effective disaster preparedness and response,” said project manager Jane Bañez-Ockelford, reflecting on the project before it drew to a close at the end of March.

Clearly, the vision has taken hold, and we’re hopeful that the knowledge and networks the FEP helped generate will continue to deepen and grow.

“The traditional way of implementing disaster response in the past has been that people from the outside controlled decisions and controlled the resources. Local communities affected by disasters were involved only marginally in decision-making,” said Milton Amayun, who works with the FEP-supported CHIC consortium (Capacity-building for Humanitarian Initiatives in Capiz). “What the FEP has done is shift decision-making to the local organizations they supported and the leadership of the communities. The results so far have been timely, culturally appropriate responses at very little cost.”

“When it comes to humanitarian response,” he added with a smile, “local leaders can do the job.”

By Elizabeth Stevens

Helping a Yemeni village fight hunger

Yemen is on the brink of famine after two years of devastating conflict. So far thousands of people have been killed and over 3 million forced to flee their homes. More than half of the country is without enough to eat. We are delivering emergency aid but we urgently need your help to do more.

We drive west through steep rocky terrain, dotted with ancient mountain-top fortresses studded with tall circular towers of rough-hewn stone. Rural Yemen is serene, isolated and medieval. We are heading from Oxfam’s emergency humanitarian office in Khamer, in the northern tribal heartland of Amran governorate, to Othman village on its western edge. 

Othman’s 200 families are battling hunger, like many others across Yemen.

Othman village, in Yemen’s Amran district, where 200 families are fighting hunger. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam

A perilous drive

The drive is nerve-wracking. Our driver Abdullah says pointedly he has been driving for 10 years around these hairpin turns and vertical cliff-face drops. I think he’s noticed how scared I am.
We wave to some men and women working the tiny cultivated terraces, and to curious child shepherds moving goats and sheep through the sun-baked mountains. 
 
We lose mobile phone reception and modern-day communication. After one and a half hours of a perilous ride over 27 kilometres, we descend into a valley dotted with fields of sorghum (a type of cereal), and to a hamlet of scattered stone dwellings in the cliffs high above the valley floor. 
 
This is Othman village.

Food is scarce

Othman’s people eke out life in stricken conditions. Food is mostly home-made bread and a boiled wild plant known locally as Cissus or Hallas. We’re here to measure how Oxfam’s cash assistance project of €81/£76 per month for each extremely poor family has helped put food on their tables and avert starvation.
 
Boiled, the wild plant Cissus – or Hallas as it is locally known – is the main food along with home-made bread that people eat in Osman village. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam
 
There were 80 severely malnourished children in Othman. Oxfam set up cash assistance projects around the Khamer district, with other agencies, to buttress their battle against starvation. The children got health treatment from our partners, while Oxfam gave cash to the most desperate of the families here. We also ran a programme to raise their awareness about malnutrition and good hygiene. 

No teachers for the schools

At Othman school, a frail old man whirls black prayer beads through his fingers, leaning against the wall of a classroom. The school rooms are now only used for community meetings. There are no teachers in Othman. 
 
The village announcer shouts out over the loudspeaker: “Oxfam is here to monitor the conditions of the malnourished children.” Curious folk join us. Parents have dressed their children, who before had been on the brink of death, in their very best clothes. They seem well on the mend. Over the four-month duration of our cash assistance project in Othman we’ve reduced malnutrition by 62%.
 
Though pale, these children are no longer on the verge of starvation.

You’ve saved our lives

Nine-month-old Mohamed Amin, the youngest of five siblings and still tiny, is cradled by his father. He has certainly been saved from an early unnecessary death, by a small assistance.
 
Crammed into a classroom, we ask about Oxfam’s work. How many times do you eat a day? How is the baby’s condition? What do you do for a living? And so on.
 
Rabee Qassem holds his young daughter while worrying for her future. He's one of thousands that used to receive Oxfam's cash assistance in Amran governorate. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam
 
Children smirk at my Arabic as their parents take turn in answering. Others nod along.
 
“Your assistance saves our lives,” says Rabee Qassem, holding his young daughter.

The effects of war

Many of these villagers used to work on small farm plots along the valley but their incomes were so meagre they could no longer afford their essential needs when the price of basic commodities skyrocketed due to the conflict and the de-facto blockade of Yemen.  
 
Since the war exploded open in March 2015, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed and 17 million people – 60 percent of the population – do not now have enough to eat. More than 7 million of them are a step away from famine. 
 
As they were here in Othman. 

Hope for peace

I ask the mother of 10-month-old Marwan about her hopes. She takes a deep breath, a moment of silence as she gathers her thoughts, and tears well up. “Peace! My only hope is peace,” she says. Others nod. 
 
At the end of our meeting, I had to announce the news. “We have run out of money to continue the cash assistance.” 
 
Their banter dies down to silence. “But why? Our situation is still miserable,” Mohamed Amin’s father says. 
 
“The cash assistance project was funded by donors for only a specific period of time, which has come to an end. We are still looking for more donor funds but we haven’t secured any yet,” I explain. “We know your situation and we are doing our best.” 
 
“Thank you. God will help,” says the old man with the beads.
 
An Oxfam water distribution point. Photo: Moayed Al.Shaibani/Oxfam
 
It is a wretched time. Our programme was funded for four-months and – although this was made clear at the start – the people of Othman are dismayed now and afraid. It’s my job to start winding-down this part of our work now that we only have a month left of funding toward it. 
 
We hoped to maintain it. We tried. It saved their lives. But the cruel truth is that earlier this year, the big aid donors made the tough decision to triage their money only to governorates that were at “level 4” emergency status – that is, one level below famine. 
 
Although still itself in an emergency situation as a village, Othman is part of a governorate – Amran – that is classified overall as “level 3”. Therefore, there are other governorates which are, overall, in worse straits. 
 
Othman no longer makes the cut. 
 
This is exactly what we mean when we say Yemen is an “overwhelming” crisis. Our unconditional cash transfer projects are immediate life-savers; last year Oxfam ran cash transfer projects worth nearly €3.3 million/£3 million, to more than 7,100 families in Yemen (the Othman project cost about €27k/£25k, by way of example). 
 
But these are typically short-term and irregular projects, and with the constant funding pressure we’re forced to keep tightening our criteria of people we can help to only the most desperate.

Stand with Yemen

Over the last two years, Oxfam has provided humanitarian assistance to more than 130,000 people in the most dire humanitarian needs in Khamer and in three other neighbouring districts. We enable vulnerable communities to access water through the rehabilitation of rural and urban water networks. 
 
We’ve invested in rain-water harvesting, repaired water networks, and provided fuel, sanitation services, solid waste management and hygiene promotion. We’ve given out winter clothes to families living in open displacement camps, helping their children to survive freezing weather. 
 
With heavy hearts, we leave Othman and its children and their parents.
 
Oxfam is still running a cholera response project there, including distributing hygiene kits, but our cash assistance work in Othman is done – at least for now – decided for us, because there are “worse” priorities elsewhere.
 
I hope Othman’s people survive. I hope they can eventually thrive. I hope that donors can find more funding and expand the humanitarian work to the scale it needs to be, including back into the pockets of desperation like Othman. 
 
I hope Yemen can achieve peace. 

What you can do now

World Humanitarian Day: Meet Michelle and Samson

This World Humanitarian Day, meet two inspirational aid workers, supporting people in need through our programmes in Nigeria.
 

Meet Michelle

Michelle Farrington is Oxfam’s specialist in public health during emergencies and is currently working in Rann in North-eastern Nigeria. Last year there was a cholera outbreak in Rann and so Michelle and the team are there helping to make sure that doesn’t happen again. 

Michelle writes: “For the last five months, I have been planning for a possible cholera outbreak in Rann, in North-eastern Nigeria.

Rann is particularly vulnerable to outbreaks: previously a town of approximately 35,000 people, it has now swollen to a population of over 70,000 because of people forced to flee their homes. Rann is already flooded which means people will be cut off from the rest of Nigeria with no access by road when the rainy season is in full swing. This means that NGOs like Oxfam will be unable to bring any supplies – of food, medicine, water treatment chemicals, construction materials for latrines and shelter – into Rann for at least four months.

Preparing for a cholera outbreak involves thinking through worst case scenarios and making a plan to ensure the items we would in case of an outbreak are present - safe water, sanitation and information for people affected. I have been working with colleagues to get supplies to Rann so that the items we need to respond are already in place before the town becomes inaccessible to trucks. We have built over 300 latrines (toilets) for people living in temporary settlements and we are starting to treat water at each water point as a precautionary measure.

It’s not only in Rann that we have been doing these kind of activities; preparing for cholera outbreaks has been happening in all of the places where Oxfam works in North-eastern Nigeria.

We have trained community volunteers in the signs and symptoms of cholera, and taught them how to work with their neighbours and communities to take preventative steps against spreading the disease. The same volunteers will help Oxfam mobilise communities in case an outbreak does happen, and will provide a vital source of communication between Oxfam and communities so we can adapt our response rapidly. 

It has been difficult, especially in Rann. Due to security concerns, Oxfam teams can only access Rann via helicopter three times a week, but everyone has been working hard to ensure we are prepared should a cholera outbreak occur. 

Michelle's vlog from Nigeria

Meet Samson

Like Michelle, Samson is a fellow humanitarian aid worker in Nigeria. Samson works in the government-run Farm Centre camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. It is a camp established by displaced people themselves when they moved into empty unfinished buildings the government was building for government workers. There are also people living in makeshift shelters, especially those who have arrived more recently. Oxfam is providing water, latrines and sanitation in the camp. 

Samson's passion for humanity

What is Oxfam doing in Nigeria?

With the help of people like Michelle and Samson, Oxfam has been working in north eastern Nigeria since 2015, and over the last year we have expanded our response so that now we are working in eight different locations across Borno and Adamawa states. Some of the areas that we work in – Madagali and Rann – suffered from cholera outbreaks last year, whereas others are already facing outbreaks of other water and sanitation diseases.

Oxfam is also responding to the hunger crisis in north-east Nigeria where over 4 million people are in desperate need of food. So far, Oxfam has helped about 300,000 people affected by the crisis by providing emergency food and cash as well as clean water, sanitation and building showers and toilets. 

Famine in South Sudan has ceased, but hunger has spread

Written by Corrie Sissons, Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

The recent declaration that famine in South Sudan has been halted was rightly celebrated.  Any steps towards ending the catastrophic humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan are welcome, as the war torn country marked its sixth birthday last Sunday (9th July 2017). 

However, dig deeper than the headlines and it becomes clear that hunger is actually getting worse almost everywhere in the country. How do we applaud the collective effort to end famine including the very generous public donations, yet simultaneously highlight that this does not herald a significant improvement in an ongoing food crisis? Life is more desperate now than ever for millions of people. 

Above: Top Left - Mothers in South Sudan fled their homes with their children to find safety. Photo: Corrie Sissons/Oxfam. Top-right & Bottom - Oxfam has been helping island and mainland communities to set up vegetable gardens both to boost their own diets and to build up their livelihoods. Photo: Tim Bierley/Oxfam

Famine is a technical description, declared if certain specific conditions are observed. But for individuals, hunger is hunger. Just because we call it something else it does not mean that people have enough to eat again or that help is no longer required. People are suffering however it is designated and we still have so much work to do. 

Although things have become less severe in those famine affected areas, the scale of the food crisis across other parts of South Sudan has exploded. Since the famine was declared in February, ongoing conflict and its consequences – people fleeing their homes, economic decline and poor harvests – have left one million more people facing severe food shortages. If predictions are correct, by the end of July 2017, half of the entire South Sudanese population will live without knowing how they can feed their families from one evening to the next. 

There are still approximately 45,000 people who live in what are described ‘famine-like conditions’ in South Sudan. This essentially means conditions are catastrophically bad but the data for the area they live in doesn’t match technical requirements for it to be called a famine. Forced to flee their homes and fields, people have also missed the planting season. Even when they stay, many are too afraid to tend to fields. So seeds do not grow and harvests are smaller and smaller each year that this situation continues. The conflict is not only robbing people of the food on their plates now, but also in the future.

For  example in the former Jonglei state, a recent upsurge in fighting has forced more than 200,000 people from their homes, disrupting lives and obstructing access to the aid when they need it the most. People are walking for days to flee the fighting, with only wild foods to eat along the way.  

Famine and the unacceptable levels of hunger are direct consequences of the decisions made by those with the power to stop the war. As South Sudan marks six years of independence, it is critical that life-saving assistance is combined with diplomatic efforts to bring warring parties back to the table to revive negotiations for peace. It is clear that only real and lasting peace can bring people back from the brink of starvation. Until that happens, we must continue giving vital aid to stop the situation getting even worse.

Right now Oxfam is there in South Sudan, urgently working to get live-saving aid like food and water to those in need, as well as hygiene supplies to stop the spread of deadly disease. It cannot be clearer to those on the ground: South Sudan is not having a moment of respite in its food crisis. Hunger is spiralling out of control. 

Corrie Sissons is Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

 

Famine in South Sudan: communities at breaking point

In South Sudan, the violent and brutal war has put millions at risk. Women, men and children who have fled their homes in search of safety are now facing a new threat - hunger. With harvests still months away, the famine already declared in parts of the country will spread across the rest of the country, unless we act now.

Majok at the WFP registration site in Nyal. He had to make a one and half hours trek, helped by family members, from his home to Nyal to ensure he was physically present for the registration. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

In South Sudan, the violent and brutal war has put millions at risk. Women, men and children who have fled their homes in search of safety are now facing a new threat - hunger. With harvests still months away, the famine already declared in parts of the country will spread across the rest of the country, unless we act now.

When the rains begin in late April or May, conditions will become even more difficult for the people in need and for the humanitarian groups trying to reach them. Flooding makes roads and airstrips impassable and can cause a rise in cholera and other water-borne diseases.

George* sits on his mother’s lap as health personnel takes his measurements to determine his nutrition level. There are 208 malnutrition cases in this hospital in Nyal, Unity State. These don't include the many adults facing extreme hunger in the area.

Nearly 5 million people - 40 percent of the population - are facing extreme hunger. "We are seeing communities now at breaking point. In the swamps between the famine-affected areas and where Oxfam is working, we know that there are thousands of people going desperately hungry,” says Dorothy Sang, Oxfam's Humanitarian Campaign Manager in South Sudan.

Panjiyar County, in southern Unity State, sits next to the frontline of some of the heaviest fighting we are seeing in South Sudan today. It is no coincidence that this frontline is also home to the 100,000 people who have been hit by deadly famine. Many have traveled for days on foot to reach generous host communities, who themselves are now sharing what little food they have with their neighbours and are waiting for that next food aid delivery in order to survive.

An elderly woman at the registration site in Nyal Catholic church, South Sudan. She came from Nyandong Payam with the help of family members. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

So far, Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations have been able to help to keep famine from spreading with food distributions, clean water and other vital aid. So far, we have been distributing food to more than 415,000 people as well as providing more than 140,000 people with clean water and sanitation services.

Oxfam staff Pedro Marial Rock takes the fingerprint signatures of Nyabiey (left) and Nyakonga (right) to verify they are receiving food at a distribution in Nyal on March 20, 2017. Photo: Lauren Hartnett/Oxfam

In Nyal, Panyijar County, some of the most vulnerable people from surrounding islands arrive exhausted after hours on Oxfam canoes. They are here to register for a World Food Programme food distribution. We are using canoes and paying canoe operators to make sure that the most vulnerable do not miss out on access to food.

 

Marissa and her family fled from famine and conflict-hit Mayendit, where all of their food had been burnt and their home burnt down. They brought what they still had to Nyal, pulling their possessions along the swamps in large tarpaulins. They're now hoping to register for a food drop. Photo: Dorothy Sang/Oxfam

Besides providing clean water and toilets on some of the islands closest to Nyal, we are also helping both its island and mainland communities to set up vegetable gardens to boost their own diets and to build up their livelihoods.

“What concerns us most are the people we have yet to reach. The fighting means no one is able to work on the remote islands, and we are only able to send canoes up the river to help the people when we can ensure the safety of our staff,” says Sang.

 You can help

The people of South Sudan are doing all they can to help themselves. Where the newly displaced have arrived, families are generously offering what little they have. But this is not enough. We need to get more food, clean water and other vital support to the most vulnerable people.

We are calling for more funding to help reach people before it’s too late. You can help. Donate now.

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