The humanitarian community's attention is divided these days among multiple crises: “donor darling” South Sudan is facing a humanitarian disaster; ongoing violence in neighboring Central African Republic is displacing thousands; health workers are struggling to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; and the civil war in Syria still has no end in sight.
So what happens when a strong typhoon again hits the Haiyan-battered southern provinces of the Philippines, or another earthquake shatters the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince? Could the international community still adequately respond to these disasters?
At the just-concluded World Bank spring meetings in Washington, D.C., U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening was among those who admitted there’s a problem.
"The humanitarian system is already stretched to breaking point. The reality is that we are facing ever more demands on the system, as we deal with the effects of a changing climate, growing population, conflict and extremism," she said. "Our global humanitarian system does great work, but the scale of the challenge means all of us need to up our game. The global investment in emergency preparedness is extremely low. We urgently need larger, sustained investment in preparedness and resilience.”
Global humanitarian funding for disaster prevention and preparedness was only 2.7 percent — or $532 million out of a total of $19.4 billion — in 2011, according to latest available data from the Global Humanitarian Assistance dashboard.
Greening's speech at the event wasn't just pure rhetoric. She was armed with a new 40 million-pound ($66.9 million) program aimed at training and encouraging organizations to improve how they help communities prepare for disasters.
DfID’s new Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Program will provide disaster simulations and drills to aid workers in some of the countries most prone to disasters, such as Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and South Sudan, although a well-placed source within the agency told us that countries covered by the program are still up for discussion by DfID and its partners. They will consider countries based on suitability, partner capacity and risk.
A total of 30 million pounds will be delivered through the Start Network and Communicating with Disaster-affected Communities Network, both composed of British humanitarian aid agencies. The first will help build the capacity of local civil society organizations through the Start Build platform, so they can respond better and more effectively to crises happening in their own country without having to rely much on outside help or the United Nations. The second, meanwhile, will help boost communication and coordination among humanitarian agencies and affected communities, potentially through projects that use geographic data monitoring to track disasters, tap into national communication systems, or through the conduct of detailed risks analyses.
The remaining 10 million pounds will be open to NGOs and other stakeholders on a competitive basis.
Greening also announced a new 20 million-pound fund for the World Food Program and UNICEF aimed at helping both U.N. agencies improve disaster planning in the following countries and regions: Afghanistan, the African Great Lakes, Central America, Central Asia, Chad, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and Syria (including neighboring countries that host Syrian refugees). DfID does not have a permanent presence in some of these.
The new program is in line with Greening's five key areas for an improved emergency response, which include getting local groups to take on a more leadership role in humanitarian response, and exploring innovative approaches in disaster preparation, such as the use of mobile phones.
The fund will help UNICEF and WFP ensure relief items are prepositioned and stocks are adequate enough in the 11 identified countries and regions in the event of a disaster — although it is still unclear why the fund was only meant for the two agencies, and if it’s ready to address prepositioning obstacles like looting and insecurity, issues that aid agencies for instance grapple with in South Sudan as the rainy season approaches.
Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.