• Inside Development
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Humanitarian aid: What you need to know

By Eliza Villarino02 February 2012

Locals help unload humanitarian aid from a U.S. military aircraft in Pakistan. Photo by: Joshua Kruger / CC BY-SA

Business brims nowadays in Rwanda. With reforms in place, the country has turned into one of Africa’s most investment-friendly economies in recent years.

Rwanda, without a doubt, is a great story of economic turnaround. The country was in shambles following the 1994 genocide. And its recovery would not have been possible if not for the massive outpouring of global support it received.

Humanitarian aid, in particular, played a huge role in helping Rwanda overcome that tragic episode in its history. In fact, according to one independent study, humanitarian assistance was the one praiseworthy aspect of the immediate international response to the crisis. The key to that effort’s success, as is the case for all similar operations: strong coordination among humanitarian actors.

Coordination and fundraising

Disasters, whether natural or man-made, result in a race to save lives, and as such, effective coordination of humanitarian efforts is crucial.

Typically for countries with sophisticated government structures and sufficient resources, local authorities oversee the coordination of activities to help victims of earthquakes, floods, droughts and similar catastrophes. In disasters of international scale, the United Nations takes charge.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs specifically has the mandate to ensure a coherent global response to emergencies. It issues appeals for financial support toward aid groups operating on the ground, whether for short-term relief or continuous humanitarian situations.

Aid appeals, however, oftentimes go underfunded. This may be attributed to donor fatigue, a phenomenon often attributed to a lack of resources, frustration with the alleged mismanagement of funds, the dearth of conclusive performance data and a lack of media attention.

Corporate partnerships

Given the current challenges in traditional fundraising, U.N. institutions and other humanitarian groups have increasingly sought innovative ways to stretch their resources, such as through partnerships with corporations.

Businesses that seriously engage in humanitarian efforts are often driven by their social responsibility programs. Their contributions may come in the form of monetary contributions or what is called resource engagement – the donation of goods, services and expertise.

Take the partnerships the World Food Program has forged over the years. The world’s largest hunger-fighting humanitarian agency maintains collaborations with companies that raise funding on its behalf (FEED and Yum!), help finance school meals for thousands of children (Cargill), and allow it to have access to telecommunications (Vodafone) and equipment (Caterpillar) during emergencies.

As leader of the U.N. Global Logistics Cluster, WFP can also call upon four of the world’s largest logistics companies – Agility, AP Möller-Maersk, TNT and UPS – to provide expertise, assets and services in the wake of large-scale natural disasters, all for free. Logistics services such as warehousing, trucking and airlifting are, needless to say, vital to the rapid response in emergencies.

Humanitarian procurement

Because disasters are often hard to predict, and first response is usually meant to save lives, procurement is usually accelerated and focused on food, water, medicine and other relief goods.

Large humanitarian groups normally turn to a short list of suppliers to directly provide them or their partners with the needed goods and services. The European Commission’s humanitarian and civil protection office, or ECHO, for instance, keeps a roster for nonprofits. ECHO’s so-called humanitarian procurement centers include the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins sans Frontières and UNICEF.

The Red Cross, MSF and UNICEF, meanwhile, contract with commercial manufacturers for their needed supplies. In the case of the Red Cross and UNICEF, companies must register as suppliers before they get invited to bid for procurements.

Aid worker security

Relief groups face a series of challenges serving areas affected by natural disasters or armed conflicts: red tape, damaged infrastructure and unsafe work conditions may all delay the delivery of much-needed goods and services.

In volatile regions especially, aid professionals face many dangers, including abductions and deathly violence. Since 1997, more than 2,400 international and national relief workers have been killed or wounded following attacks, according to the Aid Worker Security Database, a website that tracks major incidents.

The sacrifices and bravery of humanitarian workers do not go unnoticed. On Aug. 19 each year, the international community celebrates World Humanitarian Day. This annual tribute began in 2009.

The perils that come with humanitarian work suggest it takes more than just passion for the cause – relief workers need to be flexible and able to work hard under pressure as part of a multicultural team. They often require special training, especially before being dispatched to danger zones.

Crisis prevention

The magnitude of damages that come with disasters – a staggering $600 billion over the last two years alone – has intensified the international community’s focus on crisis prevention and on linking short-term relief to longer-term development.

In September 2011, some of the leading players in humanitarian relief and international development made what was regarded an unprecedented joint commitment to make disaster risk management a policy priority. The partnership involves the World Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, European Commission, U.K. Department for International Development, U.N. Development Program, OCHA and U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Recent disasters in Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Japan make a persuasive case that counter-measures for dealing with extreme events must be at the core of every country’s policy and planning, both rich and poor,” noted World Bank’s press release dated Sept. 23, 2011. “In addition, the ongoing crisis triggered by the drought in the Horn of Africa is a stark reminder that development and humanitarian actors need to closely cooperate in monitoring and engaging early in slow-onset disasters, in order to avoid catastrophic emergencies.”

Under the initiative, the partner agencies will work together to develop and fund disaster risk reduction and resilience strategies in vulnerable countries. Many of these disaster hot spots are also low-income economies and located in Asia-Pacific.

More on humanitarian relief careers:

On ECHO:

On aid worker security:

About the author

Eliza villarino 400x400
Eliza Villarino

Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.


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