Turning on my TV on the morning of January 13th, I remember being struck by the surreal footage of a collapsed Haiti over my morning cup of tea. It was much the same when the creeping reality of the floods in Pakistan emerged just a few months ago.
In both situations, we dug deep, and made a donation to one of the many organisations working on the ground in these countries. In this blog, I’m going to explain how those donations to disaster appeals get spent.
Following a disaster like Haiti, aid agencies have to think about three main questions:
- Do we have access to and relationships in the disaster zone; are any of Haiti’s main roads, railways, ports or airports that are not blocked or damaged beyond use?
- Do we have the skills to respond to the disaster zone?
- Do we have the finances to respond to the disaster?
As soon as they can answer “Yes” to the three questions above, it’s all systems go.
In donor countries, aid agencies often work together to raise funds to minimise competition and waste. In the UK, this is done under the banner of the Disasters Emergency Committee (the DEC) and there’s a push on in Australia to setup something similar.
On the ground, one of the first things that needs to happen is for all of the agencies already working in that area to get together and work out a common plan. Leadership in this area falls to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who setup a communications centre and work with large aid agencies such as OXFAM and Save the Children, as well as smaller local groups to delegate out who’s going to do what.
This coordination is essential to avoid duplication and gaps in the response – but it’s not easy. Straight after a disaster things are chaotic, and despite best efforts, there are still sometimes problems in the way that agencies are able to work together on the ground. It’s from these gaps and problems that the media inevitably report 2-3 days after a disaster that aid is yet to arrive in certain places.
Local governments also acquire resources, acting on behalf of the central government and typically using their army to distribute aid. Armies are often the best equipped and trained people to respond in emergencies, and provide a vital role in coordinating the distribution of aid when the usual civilian channels are overwhelmed.
Smaller and local aid agencies tend not to coordinate as much with UNOCHA in what aid is bought and where it is sent because they lack the scale to make a big difference to the overall response. Instead, they may channel your funds directly to local community partners who get missed by the big agencies. Smaller aid organisations may also focus on specific regions and have more detailed knowledge of the area, therefore increasing the efficiency of aid.
Rupen Das, former Director for Emergency Response and Disaster Mitigation at World Vision Canada, suggested that the overall aim of humanitarian aid is to get the essential goods to the affected people within three days to save lives.
Once the initial aid has been delivered, the use of aid is more focused on keeping people healthy and sheltered. In the video below we hear Nigel Fisher, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, talking of generally improved living standards since the earthquake in Haiti. He says that before the quake, majority of the population lived in slums and didn’t have access to clean water and healthcare. That is not the case now, although millions live in camps they do have access to clean water and healthcare.
Although the immediate aftermath may be all we see in the media, remember that these emergencies don’t get fixed in a week or a month but over some years, look at New Orleans five years after Katrina struck for example. The use of the aid must be spread over many years, helping the people and country as a whole get back on their feet.
Be encouraged by the work of aid agencies and continue to support relief efforts because I don’t feel that they get the credit that they deserve. These are big aid packages for big disasters that require a huge effort to coordinate.