Is decentralization key to better aid coordination?

Flooded community in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Aid agencies are proposing to decentralize post-disaster relief operations in the country. Photo by: Stockbyte / World Bank / CAPRA Initiative / CC BY-NC-SA

Disaster-prone Bangladesh has one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid systems, which according to aid workers themselves is far from perfect and needs some adjustment. Among the key challenges: coordination of relief activities.

One proposal to resolve this problem is to decentralize humanitarian aid operations. This would entail moving country offices of international, as well as local, aid groups from Dhaka to provinces and regions across the country.

“A major part of the problem is that the aid community is largely Dhaka-based and we fall into the trap of being far away from the disaster,” Gerson Brandao, humanitarian adviser to the U.N. resident coordinator, told IRIN News. “If we are to effectively complement the government’s efforts on the ground, it’s essential we decentralize.”

Another problem of Bangladesh’s humanitarian system is that international partners are often not part of the country’s district-level disaster management committees. According to Mohammad Abdul Wazed of the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, this often means the best information from the ground is not relayed to Dhaka-based headquarters, IRIN reports.

The way international NGOs operate in Bangladesh — through national aid groups that subsequently hire community-based organizations — is also part of the problem, IRIN says. Brandao explained this setup often leads to duplication of efforts. The people most capable of assisting the response efforts are also often left out of the action, he added.

Aside from decentralization, another proposed solution is to establish “stronger shared expectations” among various stakeholders in the system. This way, different actors will “know what they can expect and how they can work together,” according to Gareth Jones of Oxfam.

Problems with aid coordination are not exclusive to Bangladesh. Similar challenges exist in almost every large-scale post-disaster response effort.

Take the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Poor coordination was among factors blamed, alongside lack of funding and logistical concerns, for the slow progress of relief and recovery efforts in the country.

Several initiatives to improve aid coordination in Bangladesh, Haiti and elsewhere do exist. The United Nations, for instance, uses a cluster system to ease coordination and distribute functions. But even this system is not without criticism.

How can the international community ensure smooth and strong coordination in the aftermath of disasters? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributes to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.