Q&A: IFRC VP on how to prepare for cyclical disasters

Abbas Gullet, vice president at the IFRC. Photo by: Mauroof Khaleel / CC BY-NC

Aid localization was the buzzword of choice at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent SocietiesPan African Conference held in Abidjan last week. Empowering local responders can get aid where it is needed faster and more efficiently in emergency response situations. Advance preparation is key, ensuring that those closest to the community are ready when drought, floods, or other crises hit.

A federation of local societies, the IFRC is often at the forefront of disaster response. On the sidelines of the meetings, Devex spoke to conference chair and IFRC Vice President Dr. Abbas Gullet about how to respond faster to what he called the “cyclical” emergencies throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can the IFRC help vulnerable communities better support themselves in times of crisis?

What we are seeing here today are discussions on the current food security issue in the Horn of Africa. It was in Southern Africa a couple of years ago. Four years ago, it was the Ebola crisis in West Africa. And today we have the Horn of Africa and Nigeria food crises and insecurity.

The drought we are talking about now has a cycle of five to six years; it happened in 2011. So the question being asked today is, why are we where we were in 2011? It is possible to reverse these trends of cyclical famine and drought situations in various regions on our continent. In spite of climate change, which is real and here with us, it is possible to make people food secure if we come up with programs and projects that are community-based.

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The bigger question is the commitment of public authorities, the donor community, United Nations agencies, regional bodies and national institutions. In the context of Kenya, I can say from the previous drought to this current drought, we have done over 25 pilot projects in 25 different parts of Kenya, where we have done small projects that have had huge impacts in the livelihoods of these communities. If you ask me why there are still people needing food assistance, I would say because we haven’t scaled up to the levels that are required. Given [the necessary] resources, we can scale up.

How does the IFRC Africa plan to improve its data collection and management, in order to better anticipate these cyclical crises?

“It is possible today, with technology, to address many [emergency] issues. Whether drought or flood, we can forewarn people ... This is where we should be going with technology today.”

— Dr. Abbas Gullet, vice president of the IFRC

Information and data are powerful tools, and we have to use them to be better prepared. Actually, the information and data is out there. It’s up to us to collect them and use them intelligently.

Scientific research, studies and reviews will give us this data, and based on that we can decide what action to take. With drought, for example, there are international weather centers that predict every six months what the weather patterns will look like. So how can we, at the Red Cross and Red Crescent, use this scientific information for better planning and programming?

We have a mobile application in the Red Cross in Kenya, and through this application we are able to give early warnings to communities, in particular areas that may be prone to flood. If we get this information, we are able to blast messages through the telecommunications company. We are able to send SMS’s to tell people to move to higher ground, because there will be flooding, as we saw in 2015-2016. It had a huge impact for us.

It is possible today, with technology, to address many of these issues, such as forthcoming emergencies. Whether drought or flood, we can forewarn people. I think this is where we should be going with technology today.

Is it possible for the IFRC to achieve its goals on the continent without substantial government backing?

“Governments can’t do it on their own; neither can we, as humanitarian organizations and NGOs. We need each other.”

— Dr. Abbas Gullet, vice president of the IFRC

Government has the fundamental responsibility to address the needs of its own communities, especially vulnerable communities in marginalized areas — those that are deemed hard to reach or where poverty levels are very high. On the other hand, there are a lot of other resources that are available, so we should really try and access those resources. That can be the challenge.

Both governments and donor agencies like to work with transparent and accountable organizations, and the IFRC implements through its national societies. The challenge for us is the need to further engage with our governments, get resources from our governments, to gain confidence in the national societies, and then with the general public and private sector. As they say, “it takes two to tango,” so we need this partnership. Governments can’t do it on their own; neither can we, as humanitarian organizations and NGOs. We need each other, so the earlier we come together, the better.

Here at the Pan-African Conference, there was a discussion on “doing things differently.” With the IFRC being first responders in many emergency situations, how specifically does the IFRC Africa plan to “do things differently” moving forward?

The IFRC, through its national member societies, are always the first responders — first ones in and last ones out. We saw this in Ebola-affected countries.

It’s really about putting together institutional frameworks that will make our member national societies the preferred partners in their respective countries: Of governments, of the international community, of donor agencies and of the public. Once we are able to build that trust and confidence of our various stakeholders both locally and internationally, then people will give us resources.

With more resources comes a larger responsibility, including accountability, efficiency and the quality and effectiveness of our services to those who require them. Where there are problems of integrity, we are not hiding but addressing these facts. We are not finding fault to blame, but instead identifying those challenges and drawing solutions.

From my own humble experience, it is time we stop talking and we start acting, and start doing it as we have done in the last five to seven years, which have seen huge transformations in ordinary lives with simple technology and simple investments.

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.