Skip to main content

12 April 2022

When disasters hit, International NGOs go to help reconstruct in the aftermath. However this usually creates a long term dependence on humanitarian aid. King's researchers came up with a framework that would help equip local communities to rebuild after the devastation.

In 2016, the first ever World Humanitarian Summit brought together 9,000 participants from across multiple sectors and civil society, with the aim of creating meaningful change for the world’s most vulnerable. Over 3,500 commitments were made, including the need to put survivors of natural disasters at the centre of the disaster response and ensure no one is left behind.

A team of King’s researchers have worked with humanitarian organisations, their local partners and disaster survivors to put this commitment into practice. By identifying the shortcomings of the previous top-down approach, they have developed new working practices that are transforming the international humanitarian sector.

As a result, countries are now seeing faster responses, improved management of disaster funds and greater autonomy for survivors to drive how their communities are to be rebuilt. The Kenya Government, for example, has since updated its Disaster Risk Management policy and formally recognised the role of local organisations in disaster response.

From top-down to survivor-led response

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the response is generally localised with neighbours often providing the first response. Very often, and especially in poorer countries, as the immediate response shifts to reconstruction, it quickly becomes managed and led by international humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

This international humanitarian response is needed due to a lack of local capacity, especially in local and national government. However, by taking leadership roles in the often-chaotic post-disaster period, the humanitarian sector can miss the opportunity to build upon local ambitions and risk creating a culture of dependence on external leadership – marginalising survivors from their own recovery. It also encourages survivors to see themselves and be seen by external agencies as little more than beneficiaries of charity, potential employees or sources of local knowledge for project design.

To address this, King’s researchers analysed disaster responses from the viewpoint of survivors, speaking directly with them to understand how they were affected. They then created a framework – known as the ‘Survivor-Led Response’ – that lists the top priorities the humanitarian sector should support local people, their local governments and organisations with. These are:

  1. immediate livelihood support (not simply disaster relief), e.g. in the form of microcredits or income-generating activities
  2. psychological support to enable crisis survivors to ‘bounce back’ better
  3. support for community cohesion and effective communication between survivors
  4. support for effective communication between the community and implementing organisations
  5. coordination of activities with local government from the outset to ensure long-term community resilience
  6. a forum for confronting the root causes of vulnerability and advocating for change

The Survivor-Led Response hands control back to the people whose lives have been affected by disasters. It allows them to rebuild their communities and lives in the way that they know is best. In the past, well meaning, international organisations tended to take control of response and recovery relegating local leaders to the position of aid beneficiaries or at best employees. Putting local people and organisations at the centre of coordinated response and recovery improves the quality and long-term consequences of the response for individual wellbeing, growth and local capacity through which recovery can Build Back Better for long lasting change.”

Professor Mark Pelling, project lead and Professor of Geography

Transforming the humanitarian sector

The ‘Survivor-Led Response’ framework was tested in low-income countries (Myanmar and Kenya) and in high-income countries (Sint Maarten), before being adopted by Christian Aid – the first NGO to institutionalise it and make it a priority for its Humanitarian division.

As a result, Christian Aid found that in Myanmar they could build on local leadership and organisational capacities and respond quicker to natural disasters. This is in part because harnessing the networks of community-based organisations made it possible “to reach minority ethnic groups who we would not have reached otherwise, and who would have had only limited humanitarian relief,” said Country Director of Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Christian Aid found that in Gaza, working with community groups allowed more local control over funds – directly improving the wellbeing of 73,700 people. The NGO has also found that that in Kenya, the framework has proven to reduce existing tensions by bringing together local NGOs, communities and government for the first time.

The inclusion of ‘survivor-led response’ is significant because our core humanitarian priorities set out our overall approach, structure priorities and govern how local branches of Christian Aid operate.”

Christian Aid director

As more and more NGOs and other organisations around the world adopt the approach, there is a chance for communities to build back better in the wake of devastation.

Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals

King's College London has a long and proud history of serving the needs and aspirations of society. We are committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a university, and we use them as a framework for reporting on our social impact. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals approved by the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) which aim to transform the world by 2030. This research supports SDGs 1, 10, 16 and 17.


In this story

Professor Mark Pelling

Visiting Professor

Dr James Millington

Reader in Landscape Ecology

Dr Maud Borie

Lecturer in Environment, Science & Society

Faith Taylor

Lecturer in Physical Geography