Q&A: How to mitigate for the unknown

Saba Al Mubaslat, chief executive officer of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy. Photo by: HLA

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the Mexico earthquake, flooding in Bangladesh, the Afghanistan avalanche, and drought in Somalia — these are just a handful of the humanitarian crises that wrought devastating impact on communities in 2017. And for each incident, aid workers were on the scene with support for each varying in scope, size, and preparedness.

Looking at the year ahead, with climate change and political challenges continuing to rock societies, it seems we can expect much of the same, which is why it might be time to take a critical look at humanitarian responses and assess whether they can be made more effective and financially sustainable.

Saba Al Mubaslat, chief executive officer of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, a global learning initiative facilitating partnerships across the humanitarian sector and beyond; from technology companies to universities; local communities to multinational corporations, suggested that one way of doing that could be by training in-country personnel in preparedness to limit the amount of risk posed to lives and livelihoods when disaster strikes.

“If you think about it, it takes us at least 48 hours to make it from London or Geneva to places flooded in Indonesia or a shore that’s hit by a tsunami,” she said. “But if you invest upfront in building the capacity of the local people in areas most likely to be affected, when things happen they’re organized, trained, know exactly what to do, and are able to start saving lives without having to heavily depend on technical help coming from abroad.”

Highlighting the need for aid agencies and other stakeholders to move from reactive to proactive responses, Al Mubaslat told Devex how people at local and international levels across sectors can mitigate for the unknown.

Below are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Are there ways in which humanitarian and disaster relief work could be more effective and efficient?

Absolutely, there's always room for improvement. I think where we’re still not doing well is that we have much more room to move from a reactive mode into proactive preparedness — forming diverse coalitions of partners. We're not talking about humanitarian people coming together, but rather private sector, national governments, and philanthropists saying “OK, we know that winter is going to happen as it does every year. What have we done in terms of winterization?” — while this may be seen as a simple activity, in certain contexts it becomes a lifesaving one.

“Moving a community from being potentially negatively affected to being effectively prepared to respond to its own challenges is critical.”

— Saba Al Mubaslat, CEO, Humanitarian Leadership Academy

We recently saw the terrible news coming from Lebanon where refugees are dying of cold in informal camps. Had we had our preparedness figured out before winter, which we know is going to come — there’s no way to avoid it — I think we would have saved those sadly lost lives. So preparedness, investing upfront, and forming coalitions is extremely critical, along with diversifying those we bring into a collaborative effort rather than just keeping this as humanitarian and internal business.

But many of these natural disasters occur with no prior warning. How can you mitigate for the unknown?

None of the disasters, or conflicts, or the crises we work with come to us as a surprise. Honestly, other than the earthquakes, very few should be taking us by surprise.

Things have developed massively in the last few decades and we don’t know exactly when an earthquake is going to happen, but we do know which areas around the world are most likely to be affected. Bringing science to bear, we all know when an area demonstrates a certain kind of tectonic activity and when it’s most probably going to expose an earthquake. Investing up front and strengthening the physical infrastructure — including frontal mitigation actions or survivor reactions in our education system — would save so many souls. Again, it’s really about that preparedness. You can't wait for the earthquake to go and then deploy people from all around the world to save those who are affected. Moving a community from being potentially negatively affected to being effectively prepared to respond to its own challenges is critical.

This film demonstrates how far the Academy has come as an organization and also shows that there is a real appetite to learn about the basics of humanitarian preparedness and response. We’ve seen how communities want to take ownership of their response and recovery to a disaster. They can only do this if we help them and give them to tools and learning they need.

In terms of funding, what do you think needs to be done in order for the humanitarian sector to become more sustainable?

As someone who has worked in the humanitarian sector for more than 20 years, what really continues to frustrate me is reactiveness where funds are mobilized after the fact. It takes time to mobilize funds, and again, most solutions are provided in the short term.

We need those who are capable and able to understand that investing in the short term to save lives is one thing; that investing medium term to help people overcome the challenges is another; and that investing long term to work on the immediate recovery means hopefully getting closer to the development. This is extremely critical. It’s a full cycle, it’s not a two-month or three-month thing, it’s not a one off.

What do you think the future of disaster relief looks like?

In an ideal world, I hope we can work towards reducing crises because some of them are literally manmade and, unfortunately, even the ones we blame on climate change are becoming quite heavily manmade. Doing a little bit more to reduce the probability of crises happening is critical, but most of the time this is very political and beyond our ability to manage.

“Governments taking responsibility at a very local level needs to be embedded in the national strategies and the national disaster risk reduction approaches.”

Secondly, it’s really about investing in people. If we genuinely mean what we say when it comes to people being the most precious asset on this planet, then investing in them is always a good thing. That kind of commitment in people so that they can save themselves and their communities and continue living is extremely critical. Governments taking responsibility at a very local level needs to be embedded in the national strategies and the national disaster risk reduction approaches.

Thirdly, it’s about broadening the discussion from being a strictly humanitarian one that happens between humanitarian workers to becoming a partnership that invites and includes the private sector, philanthropists, and even faith people because everyone can play a role in a humanitarian response.

We always say that our work with the private sector should be much more than just going to them with an empty cup asking for money. It needs to be a genuine partnership that looks into learning on how to do business in a better way so that we can evolve as humanitarian workers, but at the same time them knowing that when an emergency happens, it is a global responsibility for all of us. So, the question is really for us as citizens of the globe, do we care enough and, if we do, what role can we play? We should then diversify those roles so that we bring enough complementarities around a table to plan together.

What can the Academy do to help make the humanitarian sector better?

For the last two years, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, has been working with partners to identify gaps in humanitarian learning, create learning, and to share learning from other organizations. We’re working with a diverse range of partners to connect, share, and prepare communities so they can respond and recover quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

In training the next generation of humanitarians and volunteers, we’re focusing on the basics, reminding ourselves of our responsibilities: Accountability to affected people, safeguarding, and protection of vulnerable communities. Whether during an emergency response, or in preparing for one, all those involved must ensure they are following the “do no harm” principles and the Core Humanitarian Standard. All humanitarians, including volunteers, need to be continually taking refresher training. Only by ensuring we’re responding in an efficient, ethical, and appropriate way, will we do the best we can for vulnerable people.

To find out more about how the Humanitarian Leadership Academy is preparing people to respond to crises in their own countries, click here.

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