Are lessons going unlearned in crisis response?

By Molly Anders 11 May 2015

Medical supplies are unloaded from an aircraft in Sierra Leone, where the U.K. government is responding to the Ebola crisis. What can aid organizations learn from the airline industry’s post-crash protocol to improve crisis response? Photo by: Tom Robinson / U.K. Ministry of Defense / CC BY-NC-ND

Aid organizations can borrow a line from the airline industry’s post-crash protocol to better understand and improve crisis response.

In the wake of an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board uses information from black box recorders to analyze and communicate issues to the airlines, which in turn immediately begin to implement changes to industry regulations. This connects the immediate response with long-term growth and improvement of the whole industry.

“They’ve built in a learning loop, basically,” Zia Khan, vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told Devex. “They have the mechanisms to capture the data and information, and then the analytic capability afterward to go examine it and drive the improvements.”

A similar learning loop can help bridge the gap between crisis response and long-term sustainable development.

“There’s a real emphasis in development on the acute shocks,” Khan said, citing the Ebola crisis in West Africa. He explained that this often leads to a lack of focus on longer-term issues, like an economic downturn or ethnic tension.

“If you look at the patterns of assistance and response in most crises, there’s a huge interest during the crisis and then a pretty big push on recovery and rehabilitation,” Gayle Smith, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during a panel at the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C.

One solution to the lack of continuity in development is to make sure the people most familiar with the crisis stay active and employed on the ground for the long term and can provide a constant feed of information.

By investing in the careers of crisis responders, suggested World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, donors can create a critical bridge between crisis response and long-term development, building on the knowledge of those individuals closest to the crisis. Kim used the example of Ebola responders in West Africa, pointing out that the expansion of crisis response training to include job and soft skills would not only improve livelihoods, but would transform a temporary aid presence into a long-term fixture.

“So if we can turn it into a job training program as well as a health worker program,” Kim said, “then we have an outlet for building capacity in country and utilizing all of that data to prepare for the next crisis.”

Small to midsize enterprises would also play a role in absorbing the workers into the local economy, the World Bank chief added.

He explained that we should think of crisis response as another catalyst for sustainable development, driven by “the people already taking ownership of the crisis.” With an eye on the long term, development organizations could consider crisis response the springboard for refocusing priorities in the wake of a disaster.

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About the author

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Molly Andersmollyanders_dev

Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.


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