Getting back to blogging about aid work… Tardy by several days, here is a follow-on to a prior post on what to support as a donor, but specifically focused on emergency response.
Emergency response is what pops into the heads of many when they first hear or think about aid work. It’s what most frequently makes the news, and it’s the image of aid work most often in the popular media – movies like “Beyond Borders”, occasional episodes of “E.R.”, or the just-back-still-dusty-from-Sudan-ex-girlfriend who showed up once on “Grey’s Anatomy” (my wife told me about it). Compared to long-term, local culture-intensive community development, emergency response and relief work can seem simple. In reality, though, it is rarely simple.
Here are my thoughts on what donors ought to consider as they contemplate supporting disaster response agencies and projects.
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The more general your disaster response donation, the more useful. Disaster response operations, like the contexts in which they happen, are often extremely fluid. And not just the actual situation, but also the flow of information and understanding about the extent and nature of need on the ground. Make a donation to an NGO for a particular disaster, but then let them decide whether to use it for shelter or food or the transportation of shelter and food from point A to point B.
Support recovery (not just emergency response). When CNN is flashing images of disaster victims huddled under tarpaulins in the pouring rain (or scorching sun), the automatic reaction of many is to want to donate to help them now. All well and good. Just remember that those same people will very likely still need support a year from now. When you make your donation, specifically say that it can be used for both emergency response and also recovery.
Support refugee work and response to emergencies caused by conflict. These might be far messier in some ways (mainly in terms of the security, political and legal contexts within which response work must be carried out), but in terms of the humanitarian need they are every bit as straightforward as emergencies caused by disasters. I’d also personally implore donors to not allow your own political or religious views to cause you to withhold support. A refugee is a refugee.
Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation work. The very best emergency responses are those where preparation has taken place. Obviously you can’t plan for every disaster. But there is a great deal that NGOs can and do do to help communities be more resilient, to minimize the effects of disasters when they do occur, and to prepare now for a rapid scale-up of operations should a disaster happen. Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation, either as part of long-term community development (i.e. before the disaster strikes), and/or as part of recovery programming following a large disaster.
Must-haves in any good emergency response project.
Focus on basic needs: Emergency response is about ensuring basic survival, physical security and health. You want to support programs that address some combination of the following basic activities: food, water, shelter, sanitation, protection, psycho-social support. Choose to support emergency responses that are primarily focused on one or more of these. Think carefully about why you’d want to support an NGO or organization doing something other than these during the emergency response phase. If the organization you want to support is proposing to do something else, there is a good chance that your donation will go towards something other than what people affected by a particular disaster most need.
(To me these are all obvious and self-explanatory. However, please do not hesitate to comment or send me email directly if you’d like further discussion on any of them.)
Focus on Local. For all of the above emergency response activities, you want to support those organizations and relief projects that emphasize the purchase, use and distribution of locally available goods as much as possible. In cases where need on the ground legitimately outstrips local supply, purchasing and importing from within the region is the next best thing. There are many reasons why you want to go local, two of which are cost and cultural appropriateness.
Respond now, but with a view to the long-term. Choose to support organizations and projects that plan for recovery beyond the initial emergency response. In many ways, this is where your charitably donated dollars make the most difference.
The very best will also include…
Protection. Disaster zones, places where large numbers of displaced people suddenly amass, and even actual refugee camps can be very dangerous. Many non-aid-workers are surprised to learn that abduction for ransom, general human trafficking, murder for revenge, rape, and all forms of exploitation of those most vulnerable (most frequently women and children) are all very real dangers in disaster and post-disaster settings. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what kinds of protection measures they support or may even directly put in place.
Accountability to beneficiaries. Even the most basic, straightforward relief activities need to be designed and carried out in a manner that is transparent. Beneficiaries have the right to know who (which organization/s) is providing assistance in their communities, what exactly is being provided, and what criteria an NGO uses to select who receives assistance. Beneficiaries have (or should have) the right to say whether or not they even want assistance, as well as the right to give feedback to any NGO working in their community and have that feedback heard and responded to. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what their practices are for ensuring their own transparency and accountability to beneficiaries.
You should think twice about supporting…
Agencies or projects that are mainly focused on importing stuff from far away. Sometimes it is necessary to import material (tarpaulins for shelter, basic foodstuffs, etc.) into a disaster context on a limited basis. But “on a limited basis” should be the operative phrase. Be wary of those that only do this.
Agencies or projects that involve active partnership with military or military-like entities. For a range of reasons it is extremely important that humanitarian aid be provided by civilian, non-military organizations and personnel, and that the distinction between these two types of entities be made very clear to everyone in the disaster zone.
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Once again, I hope this is helpful. And as usual, your comments and discussion are most welcome.