A panel discussion during DEPP Resilience Week. Credit: Boguslaw Maslak

The Future for Humanitarian Surge: A Locally led Response

Haben Habteslasie is the Advocacy and Communications Advisor for the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme. Part 1, "Building the roadmap to 2030" and part 2, "Shifting the power to local and national NGO's" from the series - Reflections…


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Haben Habteslasie is the Advocacy and Communications Advisor for the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme. Part 1, "Building the roadmap to 2030" and part 2, "Shifting the power to local and national NGO's" from the series - Reflections from DEPP Resilience Week - are also available to read.

What exactly does it mean to localise surge, you may ask yourself. Well, whenever a humanitarian crisis occurs, resources including people, materials and funds must be scaled up or ‘surged’ to respond to those in need.

In the light of the World Humanitarian Summit’s commitments to localisation for 2030, localising surge is hot on the agenda, but how does a sector that is used to sending experts in e.g. nutrition, sanitation etc. from one end of the globe to the other, change its approaches? How do we change our policies, practices, capabilities and - let’s not beat around the bush – our territorialism, so that people closest to the emergency are leading the humanitarian responses in their own communities? Firstly, we need to understand the current picture of how surge responses operate.

Cat Kenyon has been managing the Disasters & Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) efforts to understand the current state of surge capacity in the sector. DEPP’s Transforming Surge Capacity project aims to ensure “More effective civil society surge capacity capable of delivering more efficient, collaborative and localised emergency response”. The project involved working with 11 humanitarian organisations over the last three years to pilot and build evidence on how surge responses could be scaled up (and down) in more localised, collaborative, and effective ways. The learning from this project culminated in the 'Future for Humanitarian Surge Learning' report, which was shared with participants during DEPP’s Resilience Week.

Speaking to a captive audience of humanitarians and other stakeholders at one of the week’s events - the Future for Humanitarian Surge - Cat said:

"We wanted to bring together decision makers and key humanitarian actors to create a vision for transforming surge capacity."

Addressing the 40+ organisations who had joined the event to discuss the future for surge, Sean Lowrie, Director of the Start Network added:

"Humanitarian crisis response is essentially about deploying resource – financial, material, human.  Surge therefore is the fundamental DNA of humanitarian action." 

Highlighting the importance of the event, he stated "A more locally-led system can only be effective if we learn how to localise surge.  We have to learn how to transform surge."

Participants of the event were asked to frame their ideas around three key themes: localised surge; collaboration, and adequate support of surge professionals.


Participants shared learning on the latest approaches to supporting localised surge and explored how to build national and local capacity with examples of the kind of approaches that can be scaled up, how global and regional policy on surge can support national and local actors in leading response, and how localised surge can support the existing commitments of INGOs looking forward.

Deploying from INGOs is a long and cumbersome process. Working with local orgs is cheaper, quicker and more effective. @oxfamgb @StartNetwork #ResilienceWeek pic.twitter.com/tvFfM2MTwE

— The Learning Project (@DEPPLearning) 22 November 2017

Roselle Rasay, Executive Director of CODE NGO Network in the Philippines argued that:

"Local responders should be the managers of response. They are resources, not victims."

Sonya Ruparel, Deputy Humanitarian Director of Action Aid, added:

"What do I see as the future for surge? I see us welcoming greater capacity across different sectors for humanitarian surge, moving out of our comfort levels as ‘humanitarian experts’, welcoming expertise from other sectors and organisations and collaborating more with different actors. I see the move towards localisation forcing us to make harder decisions as INGOs about where our surge decisions are"


Collaboration is one of those words you hear being promoted again and again in the humanitarian sector, with all heads nodding. But, often, it’s easier to stick to old habits, rather than take an organisational risk. In the words of Jing Pura, who works as a coordinator for the DEPP in the Philippines, ‘everyone aspires to be collaborative, but admit it, we are all sceptical about it.’

In the #Philippines, we need to expand the humanitarian development in the economy and leverage local resources, government and people. We need to strengthen #capacity, and thats where #DEPP comes in | @quigonjing @DEPPLearning #ResilienceWeek

— Start Network (@StartNetwork) 22 November 2017

Despite the many challenges in coordinating surge response and the long road ahead, the Transforming Surge Capacity project provided a platform for sharing some concrete examples of success for collaboration in surge, the idea being to have a shared but smart and responsive approach to disaster response, with more actors closer to the emergency  taking the lead.

Sana Zulfiqar shared one such positive example as the Humanitarian Coordinator Officer of the National Humanitarian Network (NHN), based in Pakistan. She said:

‘By working with actors on a national level, we have localised the shared roster in Pakistan. We work in coordination with OCHA and have 177 local and national members. Surge is not a project. It is a movement.’

Overall participants highlighted that collaboration should be a priority for all those engaged in surge responses. National and local collaborative surge actions should be particularly prioritised and resourced, given this is where collaborative efforts primarily occur.

supporting surge staff

Participants discussed how to ensure that capacity building of surge staff goes beyond technical training, to instilling the needed behaviours to deliver in demanding situations, as well as providing mental health support for those who need it. They also explored how to address the gender imbalance of surge staff and how to include more women in surge teams, who could serve as better informed advocates for the women they serve.



Discussion is well and good, but at the end of the day, what is really going to change? In this pragmatic spirit, participants were asked to make their mark on the way to 2030 by writing concrete plans that commit to transforming surge capacity to be more localised, collaborative and effective, with consideration of their own organisation’s strengths and capacity. In the words of Judith F. Greenwood, Executive Director of the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) Alliance

‘International NGOs need to be explicit in their commitment to localisation.’

As outlined in the World Humanitarian Summit, the humanitarian sector has committed itself to ensure responses are delivered at more localised levels where possible. Still, there remains a lack of funding and capacity for local surge systems. This is despite the facts that alongside, funding, capacity building, and advocacy, surge capacity forms a vital component of ensuring a locally led response. In terms of cost efficiency, using local expertise in surge responses amounts to using one third of the cost of international staff in crises. In leading the way to 2030, let us ensure that the localisation agenda prioritises localising surge.

Read more about how we approach localisation

Read about the Transforming Surge Capacity project

Read more about the Disasters & Emergencies Preparedness Programme