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PS21 Report: Lessons from recent humanitarian disasters

On September 10, Project for the Study of the 21st Century held a discussion on lessons from recent humanitarian disasters.

2015-09-10 04.28.00

    • The 2015 Nepal Earthquake was not the earthquake that authorities and aid agencies were preparing for
    • Increased urbanisation in developing states is posing new challenges to humanitarian organisations generally, but the extremely rural Nepalese villages and difficult terrain posed the biggest challenge to relief efforts
    • The influx of foreign aid workers in the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be counterproductive to relief efforts
    • Political alliances and rivalries continue to play out in disaster response actions
    • Aid agencies each carry their own agenda, which can get in the way of efficiency
    • Cash distribution is becoming a preferred form of relief and development

    On September 10, 2015, Project for the Study of the 21st Century, in conjunction with the European Interagency Security Forum, held a panel discussion on lessons from recent humanitarian disasters.

    Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact PS21Central@gmail.com if you wish to reach any of the participants

    Chair: Tom Beazley: PS21 Company Secretary

    David Sanderson: Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

    Dan Cooke: Operations Director, Serve On

    Kate Gray: Senior Programme Manager, Options Consultancy Service

    Barnaby Willitts-King: Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute

    The last earthquake in Nepal was outside living memory for most of the population, which hindered earthquake preparedness.

    Sanderson: This is a place where there is a lot of preparedness, a lot of clever people have worked for a long time and at the same time this earthquake took people by surprise.

    Gray: I think part of the reason Nepal hadn’t got the housing stock that it should have and the buildings weren’t in the state they should have been despite risks is exactly because of the gap in time from the last massive earthquake to this one, that’s more than a lifetime’s and past living memory, so the fear is abstract.

    Chile, for example, has been very effective and has very forcefully policed implementation of laws around housing and construction, and as a result it’s much better prepared than Nepal was… [The] frequency of earthquakes in Chile has meant that fear, imperative, and pressure from civil society remains quite high, whereas in Nepal actually you had an entire generation of people who never experienced a big earthquake so the social pressure doesn’t build up to force action in the same way.

    Willetts-King:  I lived over there for a few years and (an earthquake) was what they were planning for and preparing for. And yet, despite that, the initial response was chaotic, uncoordinated.

    You have to look at the institutions that you have, the building codes, and more importantly the culture around that in terms of people realising it’s important, and that’s partly enforcement and partly changing the way people are educated, and that’s to do with getting people into schools.

    The difficult terrain posed one of the biggest problems to relief efforts. The impact on rural communities was unexpected, as most preparations were based on the assumption that an earthquake would hit Kathmandu.

    Cooke: It became apparent quite early that it wasn’t as bad as the terrible one that unfortunately we were expecting – the structure was slightly different.

    So it’s an extremely complex place to work because the roads have all slipped off the side of the mountain and there weren’t helicopters early enough and I’d say that more than any other place we’ve been we were expecting chaos but it could have been worse.

    Sanderson: This earthquake happened in Gorkha districts in the North West about 80km, something like that, throughout the valley, so this was not a disaster than anybody was getting ready for.

    What’s apparent is that the earthquake’s damage is particularly visible in rural areas, and of course many of those are far flung, they’re hard to get to, it may take days hiking to find many of these places. And not yet all have been reached by aid agencies. So there’s a complexity of the terrain, a difficulty in terms of access, the monsoon season is upon us and winter is coming and other climate issues of course with snow, so there’s a real need right now to address and to look at those issues.

    In Nepal it’s been really hard because of the terrain, you double the costs of material just by trying to get it somewhere, with transportation you just double that cost.

    The huge influx of foreign aid workers can pose issues for relief efforts. The differing agendas of each group create competition between relief organisations that can be counterproductive. This was identified as a central issue in most disaster response efforts.

    Cooke: We were about the fourth team to formerly arrive. Obviously everyone thinks that British and American forces are the first to respond, but also Indian troops were right in there, China, and by the time our team had returned from the rural areas that we went to, there wasn’t a country that didn’t seem to have a team there and a set of aeroplanes lined up and all sorts of things filling the space.

    Teams were queuing up to try and find jobs. The best way to describe is these people want to help, they want to make a difference, they’ve got a big team, there’s a big hotel there, lots of cameras and that’s why we do our things.

    There are a lot of egos, there’s a lot of people in fighting, there’s a lot of people who need to justify either representing their country, or their sponsor organisation, or whatever.

    Willitts-King: The way the system works is very much stuff gets sent and so you do end up with lots of really great motivated hard working people who want to help but it doesn’t necessarily add up to what you would design if you started from scratch and you end up with lots of people and inflated rents because you’ve got so many foreigners coming, you end up with the airport being rammed full. I think the key to it goes back to being better prepared and the government and local authorities being in charge.

    Sanderson: There is a tension for agencies on the one hand, and there is a need for branding and marketing and that’s understood, that’s part of the media age we’re in where we can take photographs and stream movies and that’s understood, and of course at the same time there’s the collective effort of the coordination.

    Gray: The donor response, like the NGO and relief agency response, was very immediate.  Each donor government brings its own agenda and desire to help in a particular way; its own modus operandi.

    There is a lot of competition between agencies to work in some areas. To take one particular example from the health sector,  a huge amount of damage was done to health infrastructure. Building a hospital or a health facility is a visually very impactful thing to do, and it’s very important as well.  As a result construction work is quite an attractive are of work for lots of agencies and organisations and there is competition to provide this supprot.

    International organisations need to learn to recognise and accept when they are not needed, or when they are interfering with the recovery process rather than assisting.

    Willitts-King I think that Nepal had the same experience as Haiyan and the Philippines and countries affected by the tsunami in 2004 where coordinating the international response was as overwhelming as the actual natural disaster. Certainly, if you look at the Philippines, the typhoon that happened a year after Haiyan, the government of the Philippines said “actually we don’t want any international help because you’re distracting us from the response because we’re having to manage all of you.” That’s a pretty bad indictment.

    Gray: So in some cases I think that withdrawal is what’s needed, by doing jobs that people can do themselves you’re not actually helping things in the long term.  However, there does need to be that sudden influx of support in very particular areas. I welcome that move out after that initial phase of emergency relief is complete.

    Cooke:  If a government has got a UN coordination system and has said no more of these please, a responsible organisation should be able to do it, whereas the amount of diplomatic twisting and turning and the reasons why we couldn’t carry on for a little bit, with people still arriving 24, 48 hours after it happened – exactly what was asked not to happen – is a bit unfair and selfish.

    While the Nepalese Government’s response has been widely criticised, it is nonetheless crucial to relief and rebuilding efforts.

    Gray: I think the government has come under a fair amount of criticism following the earthquake and the talk of an earthquake has always been there, that’s been a constant background to the country’s and government’s thinking as a whole so I think there was a conference on earthquake preparedness two weeks before the earthquake hit and the findings were not so prepared, was the conclusion, and I think that’s more enactive in their experience in the following months.

    Sanderson: The Nepalese government enacted NEOC (National Emergency Operation Centre) within 4 hours of the disaster. There’s an awful lot of preparedness on that level and it “worked” in terms of immediacy of getting together and organising and starting to do things.

    The government is in the driving seat, certainly in the early stages, it’s very clearly on the record that the government made some decisions then reversed those decisions and changed some decisions. And so agencies seeking to work in that context were dealt an extra level of complexity when it relates to how to work in those areas.

    The actions of local governments and local organisations in affected areas are essential to the response.

    Gray: The local governments in individual affected districts, those coordinating groups, are essential as well as the centrally managed government.  That is the level at which the reality of coordination is realised.

    Willetts-King: The role of local organisations is very important. Communities are the first responders, local organisations, there’s been a real change in Nepal in terms of the solidarity between communities which has been really notable but again how do you get all these different moving parts, the local, the national, the regional, the international, together?

    I think the role of the international community is to share best practice and customise it to the local situation and fund it. I think with Nepal there was a lot of work with institutional change, funding things, but it could only go so far because of the politics of the country.

    The post-war context of Nepal has also distracted from earthquake preparedness. The lack of constitution and weak political structures prevent the implementation of proactive policies.

    Willetts-King:  It’s really important to remember where Nepal has come from in terms of having had 10 years of civil war, there’s still a very weak government, very contested politics, no constitution, which just had all these ramifications and structures which we take for granted in more stable countries in terms of the ability to deal with preparedness as a community level because the bodies to do this really aren’t in place as a result of the constitution.

    When you’ve got a country that’s emerging from civil war it’s still very conflicts politics, [which makes it difficult] to get politicians to really focus on something that is a far off abstract concept.

    Humanitarian disasters are not immune to international political rivalries. However, states are generally able to put aside political differences for humanitarian reasons.

    Willetts King: The humanitarian landscape is getting more complicated. China is particularly as an enabler but is taking a really big new role in India, and a hugely important one in Nepal.

    Those bilateral relationships are really important and an interesting comparison with Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, where China was really heavily criticised for pledging half a million dollars for that response in the region. And came under a lot of criticism for playing politics because of the political disputes they were having in the region with the Philippines. I think what you see in Nepal, and there’s been different takes on it, but the rivalry between India and China plays out in Nepal in all sorts of different ways in terms of vying for influence.

    Cooke: I’d say though in terms of teams talking to each other and being civil and productive and helpful was better than any other disasters that I’ve been in that situation and I did see China, Russia, USA, India, Israeli Defence Force, the Gulf states, Polish Turkish all around the big table and all in a big meeting almost as easy as this is at the moment.

    Willetts-King: Natural disasters are, for governments wanting to show support and solidarity, are a very straightforward way to demonstrate support, at a human level, but also politically. And so compared to engaging in Syria or the complex politics of conflict, responding to natural disasters is politically more straightforward.

    Increased urbanisation in developing countries is changing the function of aid agencies. However, in Nepal, the mix of urban centres and extremely remote villages poses a unique challenge to recovery and rebuilding systems design.

    Sanderson: Cities are growing around the world by a million people a week, and it’s almost unbelievable. If the UN habitats are right it’s around 180,000 people a day and it’s a throw of the dice actually whether you think that’s good or bad.

    There are thousands [of cities], tens of thousands probably, at risk of climate and flood, earthquake, and there will be more cities growing a week and we need to rethink how we do this and take it seriously.

    Aid agencies talk about “field work”… but it’s not field work, its neighbourhood work, and that’s the difference and the shift. It’s learning about new tools and especially since the Haiti earthquake that was a big wakeup call. It is a new landscape, it’s the cityscape.

    Gray: Urbanisation does require a big shift in the way that services are delivered.  Often primary healthcare is structured around the idea that you have these clinics that people travel to from afar and there’s only one and you make sure that it can provide one service. When working in an urban environment actually you’ve got a mix of public providers, public providers, the competition is a lot more real and it requires very different systems, delivery, design and approach.

    In Nepal I think there’s a very particular balance whereby there’s urbanisation to a huge extent, but you’ve also at the same time got incredibly remote communities, remote in a way that remote communities aren’t remote in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, they’re up a mountain, four days walk over Everest, somewhere else.

    The process of rebuilding has improved dramatically through lessons from previous disasters and technological developments.

    Gray: The transition phase now is about “building back better”.  That is the government’s catchphrase – which captures how they’re trying to ensure so that the humanitarian response, and the reconstruction isn’t just about replacing what was there before or a quick cut to what’s needed in the immediate aftermath, but to actually ensuring that what is returning is better than what was there in the first place.

    Sanderson: There’s been less transitional shelter and more a delivery of goods, especially CGI (corrugated iron) and that’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s cheap and durable, you can deliver it stacked up and distribute it and that’s the bulk response. The problem is its hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and it rusts, and doesn’t last very long, but then people are clever to reuse it.

    Mobile smart phones are a powerful thing, the use of smart phone technology for assessments where we could quickly send information back very quickly that’s very powerful.

    Cash transfers are increasingly becoming the preferred method of post-disaster development.

    Sanderson: The real game changer was cash. Giving people money, cash transfers, it sounds obvious, give people money. It’s very powerful because the transaction costs are super low, you can be super-efficient, you can give people more autonomy to do things… I bet in five years’ time will be the one where cash was even more mainstream and even higher.

    You know Typhoon Haiyan, the World Food Programme was number one way of doing this now – donating people food, donating people cash, that’s the way things are done now. Cash is as important as food and water.

    Disasters such as the 2015 Nepal Earthquake should be grasped as opportunities for building policies as well as rebuilding physical structures.

    Sanderson: There’s no Natural Disaster Management Act that’s been discussed since 2007. So there is an opportunity there, given these terrible events that have happened, to actually come out with a world class Disasters Management Act. Why shouldn’t that be an outcome of this terrible event?

    Report by Claire Connellan. Transcript by Fiona Slater.

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