Just over a year ago, the Director General of the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.
Much has changed for all of us since then. I have seen first-hand the burdens faced by families in the Middle East and the extraordinary courage shown by medical staff and volunteers to fight this deadly disease.
At the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), we see the first anniversary of the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months and apply what we have learned to better respond the challenges we will no doubt face in the coming year.
In many contexts, it was volunteers, the cornerstone of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, who mobilized to help those in need during the first year of this crisis, public authorities learning to further appreciate their reliable access to reach communities.
After the March 18 earthquake in Algeria, for example, Algerian Red Crescent volunteers and relief workers reached remote villages and communities affected by the disaster within 15 minutes. These volunteers were able to reach people in need so quickly because they come from these same communities. They had been trained and equipped and provided with personal protective equipment as they have to assume that everyone they help is COVID positive. This is what local action looks like to us.
We are a global movement born on the ground and sculpted by many crises, of which the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest. Over the past year, as many people have retreated to their homes in enclosures across the region, our volunteers and frontline workers have been on the streets treating the sick and providing assistance. Our volunteers have actually increased during this time.
However, the COVID-19 ‘stress test’ also highlighted the need for more investment in systems to protect, manage and support volunteers. In many countries, the struggles facing volunteers have been compounded by the impact of the pandemic on global supply chains and by sanctions. In Syria, Yemen and Palestine, for example, like many actors, we have struggled to secure sufficient personal protective equipment for our first responders and volunteers.
The implementation of corrective measures, including the introduction of insurance schemes and an increase in funding, has started. But for these efforts to have real impact, they must be supported in a way that reflects the importance and centrality of volunteers in humanitarian response efforts. It was only with their help that our movement was able to increase the staffing of call centers, mobile teams and ambulances in response to the pandemic.
Beyond these logistical challenges, the sheer scale of our response to COVID-19 has, to me at least, offered a glimpse of what we can achieve if we build a truly locally-led international humanitarian system.
Despite widespread recognition of the need for local responses across the industry, funding models have remained very centralized, highly reserved and inflexible to our new COVID realities. This has limited our ability to allocate resources to those who need them most.
Locally led national planning that prioritizes local needs and concerns over the agendas of outside actors is more necessary than ever in the midst of a pandemic. Yet we continue to watch donors attach unrealistic time and geographic restrictions on their contributions at odds with the realities and challenges of many countries.
The principles long adopted by the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative and the Grand Bargain, such as true localization, coherent and coherent donor action, unearmarked and predictable funding, and standardized reporting, must be fully accepted and implemented. work by all donors.
When COVID-19 struck, the IFRC placed local and country-specific response plans created by its National Societies at the center of its global response. This has led to numerous national response plans, supported internationally by a single global emergency appeal from the IFRC and a plan that constantly adapts to the changing needs of countries and local communities.
This model, driven by local actors and needs, and drawing on international support and expertise where appropriate, is an improved path. This, of course, requires patience, trust and humility on both sides. But if the last year has taught us anything, it’s how the reach of key humanitarian actors is supported by local volunteers and local communities. Our friends and colleagues from the Algerian Red Crescent are just one example of the future of preparedness and response that we must build together.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.