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Resource restraints demand a re-think of approaches to disaster response


BRUSSELS – As funding becomes tighter and disaster management more complex, the humanitarian community needs to capitalise on smarter use of resources and a more strategic approach to emergency management and aid delivery. This was the core message of the 2012 Global Humanitarian and Development Aid (AidEx) conference, which took place here on 24-25 October.

The event featured 12 sessions chaired by top EU officials and international experts from major humanitarian aid and development agencies. These were complemented by some 20 hands-on workshops structured around case studies and best practices regarding the effective delivery of aid. In addition, AidEx featured 200 exhibitors of relief and development products and services.

One of the key exhibitors, the French medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), showcased a real-life interactive field hospital with a fully equipped operating theatre, including surgical and anaesthetic tools and beds, prep room and a recovery unit with easy-to-install water supply, waste water evacuation and hand-washing equipment. The unit was similar to the one they used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in early 2010 and, depending on its configuration, can be set up in as little as 48 hours. One of the alternative set-ups for a surgical ward in difficult environments is an inflatable hospital that can be erected in a couple of days without compromising minimal hygienic standards.

Such technological creativity is increasingly important for the humanitarian community, said Nicholas Kroger, manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, a grant-making fund that supports NGOs involved in humanitarian operations. “When it comes to saving lives in an emergency, we need to be as efficient and effective as we can. One of the ways this can be achieved is through greater use of new technologies and new practices, harnessing the best of new science, new processes and the new ideas from those affected,” he told the conference.

For example, emergency communications has long played a crucial role in humanitarian situations, and was a central focus of workshops and demonstrations during AidEx 2012 as explained by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In Haiti the IFRC successfully partnered with the Latin American telecommunications company, Trilogy International, to enable SMS-based communications for millions of people. Free telephone hotlines were also set up for members of the public and to collect feedback from the latter on the aid services they received.

Elsewhere, humanitarian operations in Algeria to deal with the thousands of Libyan refugees along its land borders during Libya’s 2011 revolution were also heavily dependent on emergency communications. Barrett Communications, one of the AidEx exhibitors, supplied high frequency radio communication systems and antennas to the Algerian Ambulance Service in Tinalkom, a refugee camp located 2000 km away from Algiers. Zouhir Belbaki, an official with the ambulance service said high-frequency radio communications “is the most reliable and cost effective option for us, as we have no telephone network, wired or GSM, and the satellite telephone stations are very expensive for the long duration of intervention”.

Social media are increasingly used by the humanitarian community to communicate in emergencies and generate crowdsource support in a much more effective manner. During Haiti’s earthquake crisis, MSF famously tweeted that their plane laden with aid supplies was not being allowed to land. This was retweeted by the media to the attention of the US Air Force, which led to the plane eventually being allowed to land. Similarly, Haitians who were trapped under destroyed buildings were able to tweet their locations, which were then mapped by the online community, providing extremely useful guidance for the search and rescue teams.

Indeed, as noted by one conference speaker, Ana Spindler, chief of procurement at the United Nations, “today we are so overloaded with communication tools [that] there is no excuse anymore for failure to communicate in emergencies and disasters.”

     THE UPSHOT: The increasing frequency and complexity of humanitarian emergencies, coupled with increasingly constrained traditional funding sources, throws a big question mark over the future of humanitarian action.
The private sector has a lot to offer in humanitarian emergencies. Quite often, however, response agencies only approach the private sector for cash donations. In the long run, this method of “engaging” the private sector will have to change since the latter can contribute much along the preparedness/response continuum. Capability-mapping is just one area where its involvement could hugely benefit the humanitarian community, argues François Grünewald, executive and scientific director of Groupe URD, a French independent institute specialised in the analysis of humanitarian practices.
And with the growth of social enterprises, the private sector is interested in playing an even bigger role in aid delivery, but with one condition: shared liability, an industry representative told SECURITY EUROPE. Indeed, closer links and shared liability between the humanitarian community and the private sector could be a very efficient way to build resilience for disasters. Public-private partnerships have yielded positive results in the past. They should be part of the rule, rather than the exception.

About Ramona Kundt

Ramona Kundt was deputy editor at SECURITY EUROPE from 2008-2012.

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