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Away from the Headlines

by Oxfam | February 5, 2013


To respond nimbly to disasters, especially those that don’t grab headlines, Oxfam Canada has a general Emergency Response Fund. In 2012 it was used to help struggling families as far flung as Mozambique, and Afghanistan, India and Cuba.

by Ann Witteveen

As manager of the humanitarian department at Oxfam Canada, I’m often struck by how much of what we do happens far from the glare of news cameras. Conflict in West Africa and the Middle East looms large in the news. And Hurricane Sandy was covered thoroughly in North America when it pounded the U.S. coastline.

Lesser known is that Sandy’s devastation affected 3 million people in five Caribbean countries, killing 70 women, men and children.  In Cuba, economic losses from Sandy are estimated at $2.2 billion and Oxfam is working alongside the government to provide much needed shelter rehabilitation.

Storms are indiscriminate, but their destruction has the harshest impact on the poorest people and most vulnerable communities. They are simply least equipped to cope. In the aftermath, building the ability to cope and deepening resilience against future disasters are a big part of the work of agencies like Oxfam, though it doesn’t make for very compelling news.

In a recent blog, So, what was 2012’s worst humanitarian disaster?, Oxfam colleague Ed Cairn wrote that last year Oxfam responded to more crises than ever before. “Not mega-disasters like Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, but the daily struggle for survival that has just got worse in places like the West African countries of the Sahel,” wrote Cairn, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser (research) in Oxford, UK.

Also rarely examined in the news is the fact that women and girls, in their roles as food producers and providers, guardians of health, and caregivers are often most affected by natural disasters, climate change, rocketing global food prices, and conflicts. In many societies, they also have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than men, less access to credit and legal support, and few, if any, positions of decision-making power. For these reasons Oxfam places special emphasis on women’s rights and needs in the face of disasters.

In El Salvador we partnered with a local women’s rights organization to assist more than 17,000 households devastated by an enormous storm, Tropical Depression 12E, that battered parts of Central America in October 2011.  As one of the few feminist non-government organizations in the region with humanitarian aid capacity, Oxfam’s partner Ormusa took an approach in which women are not victims but are survivors with considerable strength, ingenuity and leadership to help others in their community. The insights gained from this way of responding are not earth shattering but point to a way of doing things differently that Oxfam will build on in the coming year.

To respond nimbly to disasters, especially those that don’t grab headlines but are just as devastating to the people they touch, Oxfam Canada has an Emergency Response Fund.  The fund is in addition to our appeals dedicated to specific emergencies. In 2012 this fund supported people struggling after an earthquake in Guatemala; families affected by floods in Assam, India and Zambezia, Mozambique; people who didn’t have enough to eat after drought killed their crops in Badaksan, Afghanistan; and Cubans who need to rebuild homes ruined by Hurricane Sandy.

Thanks to all who support this fund for work away from the headlines!
Ann Witteveen is humanitarian manager at Oxfam Canada. She worked for Oxfam in Southern Africa for eight years prior to joining the team in Ottawa in 2012.


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