With local consent: aid in Guatemala

In the middle of the day on Sunday 3 June 2018, Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego erupted. The 3,763 metre high stratovolcano, situated 27 miles southwest of Guatemala City, belched a column of ash some 33,000 feet into the sky and spat torrents of molten rock down its south side.[1];[2] Pyroclastic flows, generated when the ash column collapsed in on itself, engulfed the communities of El Rodeo and San Miguel Los Lotes; local residents were unable to implement emergency procedures because of the speed of the volcanic activity.[3] Almost 200 people have been recorded missing thus far, with at least 110 dead.[4] An estimated 1.7 million Guatemalans have been affected by the eruption, with 12,000 people evacuated and 3,000 in temporary shelters.[5]


Oxfam is on the scene. On 5th June it was ‘evaluating the situation on the ground in close coordination with the Guatemalan government’ and intended to ‘begin distributing water filters and hygiene kits to the affected areas’.[6] Two days later Ana María Méndez, Oxfam in Guatemala Country Director, expressed concern that ‘rescue efforts are being severely hampered by the lack of adequate equipment, poor visibility and roads closed due to the ash, lava flows and mudslides. A planned humanitarian assessment had to be postponed due to perilous conditions’.[7]


Volcán de Fuego is one of the most active volcanos in Latin America, but the current emergency constitutes the volcano’s worst eruption in a century. Its last major eruption was in 1974, when no deaths were officially recorded.[8] However, Guatemala endured its fair share of natural disasters during the course of the twentieth century, and over the years Oxfam has been involved in providing relief and rehabilitation to those affected.


Two years after the 1974 Fuego eruption Guatemala experienced a catastrophic 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Centred on the Motagua Fault, 99 miles north-east of Guatemala City and near the town of Los Amates, the earthquake ripped across the country. 23,000 people were killed, largely due to the collapse of residential buildings, and 76,000 were injured.[9] 19% of the country’s population was rendered homeless.[10]

Map showing the location of Volcán de Fuego in relation to Los Amates, near the epicentre of the 1976 earthquake. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

The Oxfam project file ‘GUA 028’ documents Oxfam’s response to the 1976 earthquake. It operated alongside numerous other humanitarian agencies, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), The Evangelical Alliance Relief (TEAR) Fund and the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO). The project file details the genuine efforts of relief agencies like Oxfam to alleviate the suffering inflicted by natural disasters, but also suggests some of the inevitable pitfalls associated with foreign agencies intervening in complex and unfamiliar societies.

A particularly revealing document within the project file is one produced by CRS. ‘Guatemala Earthquake – Evaluation of Guatemala Supported Food/Cash Community Development Programme’ evaluates the success of food- and cash-for-work schemes implemented in the areas around Tecpán, Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Chichicastenango and Patzún. The schemes involved community groups working on road projects, housing and school construction, and water system installation. 13,836 work-days were fed into 15 projects with a total of 1,673 workers involved, but the socio-cultural makeup of the targeted communities meant the schemes were not as effective as they might have been.[11]


For instance, villagers of Xenimajuju in Tecpán were initially unwilling to work for cash: ‘they either viewed it as a leftist conspiracy, or a ruse by foreigners to gain influence and take over their lands… they had had poor experiences when organizations had offered them aid, which generally never was given.’ In Tzanimacabaj and Chuguexa there were complaints that road projects had resulted in individuals losing land on road margins as the through-ways were expanded. There were additional fears that the new roads would encourage exploitative activities by loggers. Of 29 workers presented with an evaluative questionnaire by CRS, ‘almost everyone felt that cash would have a negative effect on the traditional system of voluntary community labour, and also create drastic negative changes… as people begin to rely more on outside assistance’. CRS acknowledged that the ‘programme was not very successful’.[12] Despite the best of intentions, an external agency had failed to understand the complex socio-cultural makeup of the communities it was trying to help.

A visit report by Ian Davis on behalf of TEAR Fund echoed the need for relief work to comply with local structures and values in Guatemala. He was told that ‘many visiting experts… made wild generalisations’ about indigenous Indian housing, assuming that because they were modest adobe constructions they must be ‘the product of poverty’. However, in such communities additional wealth was simply more likely to be invested elsewhere, for example in land purchase. Even the houses of affluent Indians remained relatively modest. Davis concluded that ‘modifications to the house pattern which may well be necessary for structural reasons [i.e., to improve earthquake resistance] will have to be made with local consent, rather than for local people’.[13]

Oxfam did attempt to address some of these issues in its response to the 1976 earthquake. While Oxfam was in some sense a ‘foreign’ agency in Guatemala, by 1976 it had an office in the country and staff who lived as well as worked there. It had previously been involved in an integrated development scheme in the Chimaltenango municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque, where in collaboration with the American agency World Neighbors it promoted a ‘barefoot’ approach to development, training local people  to run the scheme themselves. Project staff gradually became completely indigenous. While the earthquake claimed the lives of 3,000 people in San Martin, the network of promoters and cooperatives built up over the years formed the basis for post-earthquake reconstruction.[14]

As of 31st January 1977 Oxfam had received £768,480 in donations for the Guatemalan relief effort, including £60,365 donated by the general public. Much of this was invested in shelter and housing provision: ‘lamina’ corrugated roofing was widely distributed, and Oxfam produced 50,000 ‘comic-book style’ manuals on low-cost, earthquake-resistant construction techniques.[15] Oxfam did and continues to channel its funding into local partner organisations in an attempt to prevent local communities becoming passive recipients of development work. Hopefully this policy will mean that, in the present crisis, reconstruction and rehabilitation work will be conducted with local people, rather than for them. The desire to alleviate suffering in far-flung places is an admirable instinct; we need only ensure our efforts are well-executed, in addition to well-meaning.


[1] ‘Guatemala’s Fuego volcano: How the tragedy unfolded’, 5/06/2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-44369461, accessed 07/06/2018.

[2] ‘Guatemala volcano: Almost 200 missing and 75 dead’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-44378775, 06/06/2018, accessed 07/06/2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘Fresh lava flows from Guatemala’s Mount Fuego as death toll rises to 110’, 10/06/2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/guatemala-volcano-fresh-lava-flow-evacuations-a8391886.html, accessed 11/06/2018.

[5] ‘Guatemala volcano: Emergency agency ‘failed to heed warnings’’, 07/06/2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-44393085, accessed 07/06/2018.

[6] ‘Oxfam in Guatemala is assessing its humanitarian response to “Volcano of Fire” eruption’, 05/06/2018, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/press/oxfam-in-guatemala-is-assessing-its-humanitarian-response-to-volcano-of-fire-eruption/, accessed 07/06/2018.

[7] ‘Over 12,000 people evacuated due to continued volcanic activity in Guatemala, Oxfam provides humanitarian aid’, 07/06/2018, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-06-07/over-12000-people-evacuated-due-continued-volcanic-activity, accessed 07/06/2018.

[8]  ‘Guatemala’s Fuego volcano: How the tragedy unfolded’, 5/06/2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-44369461, accessed 07/06/2018.

[9] ‘1976 Guatemala earthquake’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1976_Guatemala_earthquake, accessed 07/06/2018.

[10] ‘Global Earthquake Model – Earthquake Consequences Database’, https://gemecd.org/event/11, accessed 07/06/2018.

[11] Ms. Oxfam PRF GUA 028.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ms. Oxfam PRF GUA 028 Rep.

[14] M. Black, A Cause for Our Times. Oxfam: the first 50 years (Oxford: Oxfam 1992) pp.198-199.

[15] Ms. Oxfam PRF GUA 028 Rep.

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