Job Van der Poel
Socio-natural disasters and risks have been, and will continue to threaten human life and livelihoods, if anything probably at an increasing rate. At the start of a new decade, increased political volatility and a rapidly changing climate present new pressures on populations and a likely increased occurrence of displacement, extreme weather events and environmental degradation. The notion of assessing risks, analysing possible mitigation and recovery measures is – unfortunately – nothing new. Nor are prevention, mitigation and response mechanisms in order to overcome such risks.
Nonetheless, experience shows that time and again INGOs and international actors find themselves running after the facts and developing emergency responses in a reactive manner. When a disaster strikes, humans have the tendency to bond together in solidarity. Financial, material and human resources are mobilized within days to provide the much-needed humanitarian relief. One can easily relate to the loss of life and property, and the human connection drives us to support those in need.
At the core of the humanitarian imperative, and the subsequent emergency response is thus the saving of human life and the reduction of suffering. The belief is that every human has the right to a life with dignity and thus also to humanitarian assistance when basic needs can no longer be met autonomously. In order to provide that assistance, it becomes our moral responsibility to ensure that life-saving responses are as timely and efficient as possibly.
This is no easy feat, and it becomes only more challenging when realizing that disasters, while often similar in their consequences, require unique responses depending on the type of event, the context and the underlying pressures. Setting up rapid responses is a near impossible task without the local expertise, the right skills and efficient levels of preparedness.
Short-term, reactive planning and an apparent inability to foresee or anticipate longer-term, underlying weakness become clear only after disaster has struck. The further development of Emergency Preparedness is therefore critical to the humanitarian sector.
Effective emergency management requires the creating and securing of a resilient community, by building and sustaining local capacities across all stakeholders, in order to prevent, mitigate and respond to threats. This requires a pro-active stance on emergency management, as opposed to a reactive approach. What is this pro-active approach to emergency management?
“Preparedness” concerns the process of analysing a socio-natural context, its hazards and related risks and undertaking pro-active strategic planning exercises, including setting readiness objectives and ensuring enhanced capacities for response when disaster strikes. It requires time, funds and expertise before people are in immediate and urgent need.
The issue, however, is that it often provides few tangible or marketable results and falls under long-term anticipation. For all these reasons it is seen as less sexy. Though crucial, these seemingly unattractive activities are harder to sell and less practiced.
Proactive emergency preparedness brings about significant benefits, most notably in the reduction of loss of life and suffering. Through effective readiness planning, response costs can be significantly reduced. Anticipating key supplies and materials, as well as reducing logistical burdens ahead of a response reduces the need for high-intensity, large volume procurements and large human resources mobilization.
It also reduces the likelihood of unintended negative effects, through active stakeholder engagement prior to the intervention, and thorough context analysis, informing relevant activities and objectives. Emergency management is most effective if managed at the lowest possible level. Community engagement, resilience and capacity strengthening, allows local communities to set up their own response, and respond in a timely manner.
Enhanced preparedness and the ability to set up an effective response is a collective responsibility, which cannot be realized by INGOs alone. It requires a broader and shared objective by national and local governments, private sector stakeholders and institutional donors within the humanitarian sector. The primary responsibility for guaranteeing the safety and security for its citizens lies with the government and local authorities.
Skills and resources in order to effectively coordinate and set-up an emergency response are not standard practices, even in areas of high exposure to natural disasters. Through the strengthening of standard operation procedures in emergencies, contingency planning and the development of coordination structures allow for a level of readiness that ensures an efficient and timely response.
Moreover, preparedness actions require expertise and financing. Donors have a major role to play in this aspect, by making available enough funding so that key actors and stakeholders are able to ensure their own preparedness and that of partners. Funding long-term oriented preparedness programs can not only ensure the increased response capacity and efficiency of humanitarian actors, but also lessen the burden on donors at a time when disaster does strike.
With growing pressure on institutional donors to demonstrate their efficient use of resources and value for money in projects, preparedness and local capacity strengthening should be high on their agenda.
This is not to demand a revolutionary shift in the approach to emergency management, nor an attack on the current system. It is a petition for a more proactive stance and increased understanding on the need for emergency preparedness measures within the humanitarian sector for all partners.
Humanitarian organizations need to be able to take a step back from their permanent response thinking, and ensure the time is taken for planning and developing preparedness action. Local governments and authorities need to understand their pivotal role in response management and the required expertise and preparation in order to provide that required support.
Likewise, donors have a substantial interest in funding preparedness and resilience programs in order to decrease the loss of life and reduce burdens during emergency response. Lastly, all stakeholders need to keep in mind that the most effective emergency management happens at the lowest level, and therefore investments are needed in local NGOs, civil society organization and community-based organizations who are often more than willing and capable to respond, if only given the resources and required tools.
Job Van der Poel is Program Manager at The Hague Academy for Local Governance