World Humanitarian Day: 3 challenges in the year ahead

PAHO/WHO Haiti country office staff meet to discuss the coordination of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts during the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti. How can aid workers best share critical information in times of disaster or emergencies? Photo by: Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization / CC BY-ND

Today is World Humanitarian Day, and according to the United Nations, more people than ever are in need of emergency relief — 100 million, up from 30 million in 2006.

This week, a column of ash 5 kilometers high erupted from the Cotopaxi volcano, causing a state of emergency in Ecuador; El Niño is behind a drought causing malnutrition in Guatemala; 1 million people are still flooded out of their homes in India; dengue fever is hitting Aden; farmers in Myanmar are scrambling to find rice seeds to replant their paddy fields after major floods; 200,000 Sudanese have fled since January because of poor harvests and continued fighting; and the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to claim the lives of civilians.

No wonder then that the need for emergency aid is increasing, as are media reports showing commodities — from food to seeds to shelter — being distributed. But one of the most important commodities in an emergency is less visible, but equally vital: information.

Many disasters are inevitable, but with the right information at the right time, loss of life and livelihood can be avoided. Studies show that every pound spent on getting the right information to communities to secure families and livestock from floods or setting up firebreaks will save many more.

Between now and the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, the global humanitarian system needs to be challenged to do better on getting lifesaving information to families, communities and aid workers.

1. The household challenge.

How can family members find each other in the immediate disruption of a sudden onset disaster, such as an earthquake or in conflict zones? The Haiti earthquake showed the potential of free SMS messages for family tracing, reporting individual need and increasing the impact of local radio.

However, SMS is not a universal solution and in Haiti, techies and humanitarians often did not understand each other’s ways of working. Information systems can be robust and simple — in El Salvador, for example, organized youth groups have been trained to take a register after a disaster and trace missing family members.

2. The community challenge.

How can information get to and from communities? Communities are often best placed to know what type of help they need. Research on shelter, for example, shows that the local knowledge often trumps prepackaged tents. In 2012, Tuareg refugees from Mali soon dismantled the unbearably hot U.N. tents pitched in straight lines and incorporated the materials into their own traditional structures — waterproof, sunproof, safe from termites and organized by village.

Communities also need to access information to find out where help or danger lies. ICT helped map election-related violence in Kenya, for example — but the data and those providing it need to be trusted.

3. The aid workers’ challenge.

How can aid workers best share information? Overwhelming disasters such as the April and May earthquakes in Nepal require a national and international response. But there is no reliable global system for the incoming aid worker to find the latest reliable map, local studies and the latest guidelines on what types of buildings, child protection, cash distribution, water points, medicines, emergency schooling and shelter are appropriate.

The present system relies on high-level general information, formal meetings of clusters of organizations working on an issue, and individual aid workers emailing attachments to each other. A pilot scheme in Pakistan in 2014 showed a great desire by agencies to share information, for example, their own reports, inter-cluster issues, information in local languages and from local and national nongovernmental organizations. It concluded that a common humanitarian library using technologies popularized by online bookstores and search engines is a tool that would help that aid workers make the right response, fast, and do no harm. Innovation in this fast-moving area needs to be spread and tested faster. Practitioners are not short of ideas — from TED-type broadcasts on new approaches, to a common humanitarian library.

A key test of the success of the World Humanitarian Summit will be whether on World Humanitarian Day 2016, we can innovate to get the right information, at the right time, to households, communities and relief workers.

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About the author

  • Marie Staunton

    Marie Staunton became chair of the Crown Agents Board in July 2015. She has over 25 years of experience in the international development and human rights sectors including chief executive roles at Amnesty U.K., Plan U.K. and Interact Worldwide. A qualified lawyer with considerable commercial experience, she has also been a chair and trustee of a variety of local, national and international organizations including the Disasters Emergency Committee, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency Equality and Diversity Forum, Grow Up Free From Poverty Coalition and Amnesty International.