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ActionAid International

Agency ActionAid International Fax +27 (0) 11 880 8082
Chief Executive Ramesh Singh Website
ActionAid UK Director

Richard Miller

Staff international - 26
regional offices - 25
field staff - 1,942
Phone +27 (0) 11 880 0008 Financial turnover 2004 £92 million



Field Exchange recently interviewed Roger Yates from ActionAid UK in their offices near Archway station in north London. Roger, whose professional background is engineering, began working overseas in 1984, alternating between development and emergency work. Prior to joining ActionAid in 1999, he worked for a variety of organisations, including Oxfam and DFID, and took up the post of head of emergencies in ActionAid UK in 2000.

Through consultation with country programmes, ActionAid has recently gone through a long process of re-defining strategic priorities. There are now six strategic priorities, which are all based around human rights. Roger is responsible for one of the newer priorities in the organisation - "the right to human security in conflict and emergencies". The other strategic priorities relate to right to food, women's rights, HIV, education and governance.

Historically, ActionAid has mainly worked in development programming. In fact, the first emergency unit was only established in 1995. At the time, there was resistance within the organisation from 'purists' who viewed ActionAid as a predominantly developmental organisation. For the next few years, the emergency section had an uncertain existence. However, within months of arriving, Roger undertook a review of Action Aid's emergency work. Amain conclusion was that the organisation really had "no option but to continue working in emergencies". Also, rather than just "flying in and flying out of emergencies", the review argued for an approach which strengthened the interface between development and emergency programming. Given that it is the poorest who suffer most in emergencies, the review highlighted two ways to strengthen the emergency/development interface. First, development can reduce vulnerability of the poorest to emergencies and secondly, emergencies provide a chance to reduce vulnerability if these are largely determined by power relations, i.e. in emergencies power relations can be changed. This conceptual approach to emergencies was accepted within ActionAid and still largely underpins the organisation's emergency work.

Although ActionAid do engage in traditional forms of humanitarian intervention like food distributions - particularly when they have a lead presence in an emergency affected area - their emergency interventions are mainly longer-term, with a livelihoods and poverty focus. Interventions strive to empower the poorest following emergencies, a good example being the recent communal riots in Gujarat where ActionAid helped the poorest submit compensation claims. Another typical form of ActionAid emergency activity is in the area of psycho-social support following natural disaster. For example, in post-cyclone Orissa or following the Indian Ocean Tsunami, cadres of people in the community were trained to recognise and deal with distress and trauma. ActionAid usually work through community volunteers who are trained and then take on the work.

Another unique element of ActionAid's work has been the development of a participatory vulnerability analysis tool with a high degree of focus on policy issues. This approach is now being taken up by country programmes as well as other agencies.

Up until recently, ActionAid have tended to embark only on emergency programmes in those countries where they already have a longterm presence. However, this started to change around 2002 with the realisation that ActionAid had a valuable contribution to make in emergencies, especially in terms of addressing exclusion of the poorest. Consequently, ActionAid are now committed to scaling up their emergency work and working in countries where there have been no prior programmes, for example, Niger, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Iran, through operational partners. ActionAid will, however, only work in emergency contexts where poverty is an issue. Thus, after an initial appraisal before the invasion, ActionAid decided not to work in Iraq because poverty was not a major issue. In other emergency situations, there may be different constraints. In Darfur, ActionAid lacked the capacity to get involved while in Indonesia, a combination of limited capacity and lack of available partners prevented engagement.

In essence, ActionAid does not consider itself to be a relief agency, although they "do some relief". ActionAid don't arrive in an emergency "with a solution looking for a problem", but are a people-centred and rights based agency - "which means listening and then acting". Furthermore, their focus is on recovery, which is planned from day one of their arrival.

ActionAid is mainly funded by the European public (largely British). The predominant mechanism is through the child sponsorship scheme whereby the funding public are matched with children/families and are kept in touch with how their support is being used and how their children/families are doing. ActionAid does not submit many emergency programmes proposals to traditional donors like DFID or the EU, although it is increasingly recognised that if ActionAid want to scale up more in emergencies, they will have to strengthen their capacity to submit proposals to the bilaterals. ActionAid is a member of the Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC) so that when a major disaster occurs, ActionAid takes part in national appeals and is entitled to a percentage of the funds raised to respond to the crisis. ActionAid, where necessary and appropriate, can and does launch emergency appeals to its supporters. In the event of a disaster, a country programme may also reallocate its funds to support the response.

ActionAid do not have permanent staff employed as nutritionists so they hire in nutritional expertise when needed. The organisation is structured so that there are international emergencies advisors in the region (three in Africa, one and a half in Asia and one in the Americas). These advisors have three main roles;

  1. Emergency response with a global remit, i.e. they can be asked to work in any region
  2. Getting country programmes in the region to incorporate 'emergency thinking' into their development programmes, e.g. Disaster Preparedness and understanding of vulnerability
  3. Engagement with policy development.

Roger reckons that one of the biggest challenges for ActionAid in the emergency sector is strengthening their engagement in conflict situations. This is not to say that ActionAid do not already work in conflict situations, e.g. Burundi since 1993, Sierra Leone, Nepal, etc, but rather that ActionAid need to develop their conceptual approach to working in conflict across the organisation. Up to now, each country in crisis has had to develop its conceptual approach from scratch. As Roger put it, they need to work "on" rather than "in" conflict. There are many issues to consider, not least how to engage with different factions like peace movements/peace keepers and what are the implications of these new relationships. There is hope of setting up new ActionAid offices in New York with a view to developing a closer relationship with the UN Security Council.

According to Roger, one of the unique features of ActionAid is its degree of decentralisation. Their headquarters are in Johannesburg and each country programme has a large degree of financial and policy autonomy. There is a culture in ActionAid of challenging views and prevailing wisdom. Furthermore, policies and strategies are largely shaped by country programmes and their staff. A good example is the emergence of ActionAid policies and strategies around engagement in conflict, which have been largely informed by consultation with staff from country programmes experiencing conflict.

One of the biggest challenges for ActionAid, according to Roger, is that their "eyes are bigger than their stomachs". In other words, they want to get involved in everything, i.e. conflict, climate change, HIV, etc. "ActionAid are good at starting initiatives but not so good at consolidating and deepening focus. Furthermore, Action Aid need to improve the flow of information from the field to inform policy development. Country programme staff are always pressed for time and their priorities tend to lie in the communities where they work. It is hard for those in the field to judge what information is going to be useful internationally and how to present it".

Roger was unnervingly open about ActionAid's weaknesses and challenges. This seems to be a part of the ActionAid ethos, i.e. challenging, questioning and internal critiquing. Getting the policies and strategies right also seems very much a priority. While ActionAid may not have the profile of some of the larger UK agencies (this may in part relate to the way in which they are funded), there is no question that they have equally interesting things to say.

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Reference this page

ActionAid International. Field Exchange 26, November 2005. p28.



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