Reimagining response and resilience: Strategies for the next decade

First responders from the International Medical Corps bring medical supplies and aid to the town of Hernani, Tacloban in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Building resilience also means giving local communities what they need to prevent, mitigate and recover from disasters. Photo by: International Medical Corps

I was in the audience when former U.S. President Bill Clinton took the stage at the very first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative back in 2005. He held all of us at rapt attention when, in his closing speech, he called on us to change the world: “I asked you here because I think that all of us have an unprecedented amount of power to solve problems, save lives and help people see the future.”

The president believed in our potential to affect change through this brand new model he called CGI. Nearly a decade later, we can only marvel at the impact those words inspired. Since its launch, the CGI community has made more than 2,900 commitments to action, which are already improving the lives of more than 430 million people throughout the world.

The power of CGI has been its ability to gather innovative minds and powerful people together in ways that they can build solutions and enable action. As president and CEO of International Medical Corps, I know my own work with CGI has helped lift us to new levels. We have built partnerships, thought big and reached high. We have engaged in lively discussions with members of the private sector including Aramex, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, General Electric, Hess, Medtronic, Procter & Gamble and Toms as well as our colleagues — DayOne Response, Global Impact, the Jordan River Foundation, Rockflower Partners, PATH, ReSurge International, UNICEF and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — and dozens of others as we’ve worked to solve the world’s toughest problems.  And in the process we have collectively sparked new hope and brought positive change to the lives of tens of millions of children and families over those 10 years.

Much progress has been made. But recent disasters have vividly illustrated that our work is not finished.

In its early years, CGI was with us when disasters hit, helping connect us to resources and networks that enhanced our ability to save lives and relieve suffering. It was reactive, but powerful. The convening power of CGI — its ability to bring the best together to focus on a single challenge — was displayed most dramatically with the birth of the Haiti Action Network following four hurricanes that struck Haiti in 2008, and was further galvanized after the 2010 Haiti earthquake that claimed so many lives. That network, still going strong, continues to demonstrate how civil society, government and nonprofits can work together to help rebuild communities in the aftermath of disaster.

But the Haiti earthquake also underscored an unsettling reality: We cannot afford to wait until after disaster strikes to begin our response. We have to act preemptively.

A training of first responders conducted by the International Medical Corps in Indonesia. Photo by: IMC

In short, the extent of destruction and loss of life in Haiti forced us to reimagine again, to think differently, not just in how we respond to emergencies together, but how we can better prepare for them together. In 2012 CGI’s Response and Resilience Track was created — for the first time focusing on the idea that to be effective, we must work together to build resilience and prepare for a disaster before it strikes.

Through the Response and Resilience Track, CGI has led the global community in calling for a paradigm shift, to change the way we respond to disasters by mobilizing action before they hit. CGI has used its ability to convene an impressive cross-section of participants — those who work in infrastructure, health, education, livelihoods and more — to think about how we, together, can best mitigate the impact of devastating calamities.

The revamped approach to disaster response has led to more than just different discussions: In true CGI fashion, global leaders are now bringing different solutions to the table. This includes AmeriCares and the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh; through CGI, these two organizations have developed a preparedness strategy to help vulnerable communities secure the supplies, expertise and resources to respond to cholera before an outbreak begins — aiming to stop the spread of the disease before it takes hold.

Likewise, Western Union has developed an innovative GlobalPay platform so that first responders can access financial resources in the aftermath of a disaster and in under-resourced communities, helping organizations respond faster and provide services to those most in need.

All signs point to CGI’s response and resilience community being on the right track. In its resilience agenda, the U.S. Agency for International Development acknowledged that “we can’t stop shocks from happening, but we can enable communities to better withstand them.”  Similarly, the Department for International Development in the United Kingdom published research that confirmed “while the cost of resilience is comparatively high, the wider benefit of resilience outweighs the costs, leading to the conclusion that investment in resilience is the best value for the money.”

The need for a resilience strategy is clear.

At International Medical Corps, we believe that resilience is not just about strengthening the ability of communities to respond to disasters and chronic emergencies. Building resilience acknowledges that individuals, families and communities are the true first responders. Giving communities the capacity, resources and tools to effectively mitigate the shock from a disaster or emergency and recover quickly is key.

We didn’t call it “resilience” at the time but since our founding in 1984, International Medical Corps knew that empowering local communities with the skills and resources needed to become more self-reliant was the most effective and efficient way to have impact. Far more than we, locals understand what works in their environment, their cultures and their conditions. And when it comes to disaster response, no one is closer.

That’s why, in 2013, International Medical Corps developed its First Responders Commitment to Action, to give more than 100,000 women in Africa the tools they need to be their own best first responders to recurring emergencies, such as drought and famine. International Medical Corps is equipping families with a variety of skills — in nutrition, hygiene and healthy behaviors — so that they can better avoid food insecurity and stop malnutrition before it starts. Local health care workers will be trained to provide malnutrition screening and treatment, so that those affected can recover. And we will provide similar training and education in communities vulnerable to high maternal and infant mortality rates, disease outbreaks, and other recurring health threats. By investing in a community before these emergencies take hold, we can create greater resilience.

As we reflect on the history of CGI and look toward the challenges of the decade ahead, I believe the community’s new focus on resilience will prompt the world to reimagine what can happen when all of us — including those directly affected by adversity — work together to meet those challenges with creative answers. I am honored to contribute to CGI’s mission of working together to create solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Nearly a decade later, I am more optimistic than ever that we can work together to ensure that in disaster-prone areas, we can save lives and help more families see the future.

Edited for style, this commentary was first published on the the Clinton Foundation’s website.

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About the author

  • Nancy Aossey

    Nancy A. Aossey is president and CEO of International Medical Corps, a preeminent first responder delivering medical relief and training programs in areas hardest-hit by war, natural disaster, and disease. Aossey joined International Medical Corps as its startup CEO, shortly after its founding in 1984. She scaled the organization from a handful of employees to 8,200 staff and thousands of volunteers working on the frontlines of crises in 40 countries.