As world leaders were gathering for Rio+20 and the G-20, we were hearing an increasing amount of discussion about why we must use various crises — be they financial, climate or resource driven — to work more smartly and efficiently as a way of strengthening systems and saving money and lives.
Much of this discussion is a re-tread of the classic story of prevention versus treatment: Build the system strongly and intelligently and the consequences will be less severe if and when a disaster (of any type) strikes.
Even if money and resources weren’t an issue, this argument would still be compelling. But how does it relate to the humanitarian world, where disasters often strike out of the blue or can’t be “prevented” in the conventional sense?
Over the past 60 years, humanitarian workers have concentrated on responding to emergencies in the shortest time possible. The immediate priority was to provide as many people as possible with the basic necessities such as food, water, shelter and medical treatment. In the aftermath of the emergency, efforts usually shifted to rehabilitation and long-term development.
But an increasing amount of thinking and energy is now being devoted to the concept of “resilience,” the idea that humanitarian efforts should concentrate on longer term planning as a way of spotting problems in the making and heading them off before they escalate into full blown catastrophes.
The Sahel is one example where a more long-term approach is now being used. Under a new European Commission-led partnership called Agir Sahel, or Alliance Globale pour l’Initiative Resilience, humanitarian workers will aim to ensure that the 18 million people at risk of extreme hunger in the region can cope better with future droughts by focusing on farming and food security.
Resilience planning also has other faces. Advance Aid, a relatively new player in Africa, operates a policy of only buying and storing emergency supplies locally. Not only does this mean they are well placed to act when a crisis hits but that they are also injecting money and self-sufficiency into local economies. We are seeing similar efforts from the World Food Program, which is also moving away from immediate disaster management into community-led resilience programs in the countries it works in.
This kind of forward-thinking approach will be critical as we enter a phase where mega trends such as climate change, population growth and urbanization add further layers of complexity to already difficult humanitarian situations. In years to come we can expect humanitarian crises to become more complicated and larger in scale. But the creativity and forward thinking we are seeing today give me hope that we have already found some of the solutions to meet those challenges tomorrow.