How to stop a disaster within a disaster

Andrew Milner

Andrew Milner

Beyond the emergency: lessons from disaster response

Public attention for disasters is short-lived and the funds raised for them are not always well spent, said Rien van Gendt, who chaired this session. Do foundations have a different role in responding to disasters than relief agencies and if so what is it? He outlined five rules from the book produced by the Foundation Center last year on disaster grantmaking: stop, look and listen; don’t act in isolation; think beyond the current emergency; use the expertise of local organisations; and be accountable to those you are trying to help.

Most of the two presenters’ (Joia Mukherjee of Partners in Health and Nicholas Borsinger of Pro Victimis Foundation) remarks naturally focused on the Haiti earthquake, but both also spoke from their experience of other disasters. Both broadly agreed that Haiti relief efforts had almost amounted to what Joia called a disaster within a disaster: the UN’s cluster system had been exclusive, bureaucratic and counter-productive, and relief efforts had by-passed what Haiti public authorities remained and had, in some cases undermined existing and very effective programmes.

It didn’t have to be like this. Not everyone, said Nicholas Borsinger, had the right to intervene in the wake of a disaster. It was time that the government in question and/or the international community took a tougher line and established a priority system for relief agencies who could do essential work. Gina Anderson from Philanthropy Australia, echoed both this and Rien van Gendt’s opening axiom to stop, look and listen. Following bush fires in Australia, her first response had been to convene a meeting of members – to stop them reacting in a way that would have been a hindrance, not a help, to relief efforts.

Accompaniment was the term Joia Mukherjee used to describe the way PiH works with both local communities and public sector authorities to strengthen their hand. We need to be able to fund and to assist the grassroots and to work with public authorities so that both governments and communities could build a society that works. We need to stop what she described as the ‘NGO-ification of what should be rights’ and we needed to empower the public sector to do so, not take a patronising, neo-colonial view of their competence. The absence of this in Haiti and in other disaster regions had made calamities infinitely worse.

We also need to be more radical in tracking the money raised for disaster relief, she urged, and to be accountable for the waste of money (too much overhead, too many people for whom it’s a racket). Is there particular role for philanthropy, as Rien asked at the beginning of the session? For one thing, said Suzanne Siskel of the Ford Foundation, we need to take a long-term approach. As Rien had also noted, the attention of the world also faded quickly and it was only too clear that rebuilding Haiti would take years.

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2 responses to “How to stop a disaster within a disaster

  1. Thanks for covering the key points Andrew 😉

    This was a very well-attended session – a good indicator not only of interest in the theme but in general disatisfaction with how things are being done – a good motivator for doing things differently for the future.

    Many sub-themes emerged – the capacity of INGOs and the aid industry – for such it is – to deliver in a timely and effective manner; power relations; pre-disaster presence; investing in governmental capacity; disaster risk reduction.

    This is the sort of session which I think needs follow up work looking at these sub-themes – and between the annual conference – by email or web (could Alliance host blogs like this for instance). My fear otherwise is that over the intervening 12 months further disasters will occur and as a collective and influential group of foundations we will have been unable to move forward.

  2. Andrew Milner

    Jon, I agree and I think this is often a problem with annual conferences – you have a good session and people are nodding their heads wisely, then everyone goes away and nothing else happens. It probably needs a few people/foundations to drive this forward – maybe foundations with experience of different disasters who could compare notes and look at what emerges for them. Not so much to compile a set of dos and don’ts for foundations – I think the Foundation Center has already done that – but to make representations to the UN, which seems to be the key agency, about what’s been going right or wrong. An online debate seems like a good way of moving along – but what about some volunteers to lead the charge?

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