Emergency Relief In Need Of Cultural Revolution

Nowadays, emergency relief is being organised much more efficiently compared to decades ago, but it is the far-reaching bureaucratisation that remains a threat to the actual needs. That’s what François Grünewald says, who will be giving a MO*lecture in Brussels the 21st of April.

  • UN Photo / Stuart Price (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Grünewald: ‘Increasingly, emergency aid workers are being reduced to typewriters who produce reports for donors.’ UN Photo / Stuart Price (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The 25th of April will mark the one year anniversary of the earthquake that vigorously shook the Himalayan state of Nepal. The world reacted with a massive effort of emergency relief. But as is often the case with operations of its kind, as time goes by there remains as much criticism as appreciation. On the World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul this May, a broad outline for better aid interventions should be drawn.

MO* asked François Grünewald, executive director of the independent research institute Groupe Urgence Réhabilitation Développement, about what went right and what went wrong with the humanitarian reaction to Nepal’s earthquake. Grünewald is, together with Linda Polman, one of the guest speakers at the MO*lecture on the 21st of April.

François Grünewald: The biggest mistakes were related to the arrival of emergency aid teams that were insufficiently prepared and insufficiently equipped, and who were a burden to the Nepalese agents. Way too many teams stuck around in and close to Kathmandu as well, even though the needs there were mostly covered by the Nepalese themselves. They however did not have the material to go and work in the interior of the country. In addition to that, not enough efforts were made to coordinate with the local authorities.

But there were also interventions based on emergency plans that had already been designed before the earthquake took place. In the health care sector in particular, these plans played a decisive role in the reaction to the disaster.

Why does the emergency aid sector seem to learn so slowly from its past mistakes and experiences?

‘Increasingly, emergency aid workers are being reduced to typewriters who produce reports for donors.’

François Grünewald: There is an increasing amount of courses, guidelines and procedures to improve emergency relief. But there’s less presence, less exchange and less capacity to react to unforeseen problems. The emergency aid workers have the most powerful computers at their disposition and are constantly in touch with the headquarters, yet increasingly, they are being reduced to typewriters who produce reports for donors.

The follow-up systems are no longer instruments to adjust the work, but instead have become ways to justify the use of the means. As a result, nowadays innovation is higher on the agenda than learning. New systems are being set up to collect and send data, used for controls that are nowadays mostly long-distance. The capital becomes “the ground”, while the tricky zones are left to the “the partners”. The problem of mutual coordination seems to be getting even bigger now that development organisations want to have a more prominent presence at big disasters.

Unfortunately there are plenty of organisations who are mostly preoccupied with their image, with planting their flag and conquering “market shares”. Executives are pushed year after year to reach higher revenue numbers. This type of entrepreneurial vision on emergency relief can only have negative consequences for the relief effort and the affected people. But the public and donors too often let this kind of competition run its course.

Still, there is hope. On one condition: that the humanitarian sector succeeds in going through a cultural revolution.

This article was translated from Dutch by James Sweetlove.

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