What is the role for humanitarian aid in the Resilience Agenda?

The “Resilience Agenda” is increasingly dominating the discourse in both humanitarian and development circles. Some argue that resilience is simply another term for sustainable development, while others see it as a distinct and crucial element of disaster risk reduction that is not necessarily addressed by conventional development approaches. In essence, it describes the ability of people (individuals, communities) to resist or recover from sudden shocks to their livelihoods. Tempting as it may be, it can nevertheless not be equated with livelihood capacity, and it is a mistake to narrowly define resilience with livelihood indicators. Rather, resilience has as much to do with skills and individual / communal capacity as it has with economic and food security parameters of people’s lives. This explains why it bridges the still existing divide between humanitarian and development approaches – humanitarians can enable and equip those potentially or actually affected by disasters with a set of skills and tools, while development workers can support the right components of complex livelihood systems that are needed to resist and recover from shocks.

Humanitarian aid clearly has a role to play in strengthening resilience. Firstly, humanitarians are best placed to understand shocks and the impact they have on individuals and communities. Secondly, they understand best how essential services can be maintained even in adverse conditions or during forced migration. Thirdly, they know what skills are needed for individuals to deal with the first hours and days of an emergency, before outside aid arrives. Finally, they are at the forefront of recovery efforts , therefore knowing best how livelihoods can be restored as quickly as possible.

This translates into concrete action that a humanitarian organisation can support in (potentially) vulnerable communities and areas. With a good understanding of the impact of typical shocks in a particular environment, development and humanitarian programmes can jointly identify the most likely threats, their likely impact, and how people and services can be cushioned from them. This spans across the first three points listed above, i.e. understanding impact, understanding resilient services, and understanding resilient people (i.e. skills).

The area of skills is particularly interesting and remains less of a priority in typical resilience programmes. A recent study on disaster risk education in schools shows that while some countries have commendable school curricula where children are taught the locally relevant skills to deal with the impact of typical disasters where they live, globally this is an under-utilised area of strengthening resilience. There is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If children grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. No matter how good the outside response is, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives. There is clearly a strong case for investing into education and training, as relevant, to advance the Disaster Resilience Agenda.

The second key area where humanitarians can clearly contribute to better resilience in vulnerable communities is the resilience of essential services. This is where the resilience agenda is very close to the development agenda, and closely correlates with the wider Disaster Risk Reduction investment. Essential services that work well under ‘normal’ circumstances are a good start, and this is a task very much ‘owned’ by development programmes. However, humanitarians, with their understanding of what makes services resilient to shocks, must work closely with development programmes to e.g. ensure medical stocks can be maintained, water sources are protected against e.g. flooding, or schools can operate in adverse weather conditions or as mobile schools in situations of displacement. Ensuring this close cooperation, essentially bridging the development-humanitarian divide, is like skills a key and very worth-wile area of contribution.


What happens to sustainability when donors don’t trust the government anymore?

I am trying to get my head around to what happens to a cooperation programme when donors refuse to give direct funds to the government. One big argument of funding government to do good things is that it builds capacity and hence leaves something behind – in theory at least.
When donors refuse to do that, and insist that development funds can only go to NGOs, it becomes really difficult to continue to support government capacity – and how is that going to leave government more capable to handle services by itself down the line (at one point)? Funding NGO projects can easily just get everyone into a cycle of aid dependency, and certainly won’t build better government.
Is this the moment where one should go all the way down to the community level? And where does government start, i.e. where does support have to stop not to violate donor conditions? It certainly is not a very straightforward situation, and needs careful – and some really good creative – thinking to not make blocked aid a more serious problem than it already is. . . .

Information Management and Aggregation

I am looking at humanitarian information management for a client at the moment. What intrigues me is the variety of systems that are around – from “home-grown” (i.e. internal) developments to open source and even crowdsourcing systems (Ushahidi being the most prominent of the latter). Great to see such variety and drive to really make information management more efficient and streamlined.

What I am missing, however, is THE aggregator. I am a big fan of feedly for my rss feeds (and thanks – with hindsight – to Google for burying Google Reader – feedly is so much better). What I miss is an aggregator for humanitarian and development information. A colleague and friend just pointed me to AidData (http://aiddata.org/). Hadn’t heard of it before – and it is such an aggregator. And at first glance it looks impressive and worthy of support.

There is a lot, however, to be done on aggregation at a lower level. Say, there is a crisis in Country X and Ushahidi deploys, UN OCHA runs an IM, various other organisations set up their information systems. Some feed into the OCHA systems, some remain distinct, and most likely not all use the same baseline or situation data, or even the same indicators. All “real life”, non-IT problems, but they affect the IT systems as much as they did affect the pre-IT work.

So how can we aggregate humanitarian data better? How do we really know how many people we have reached across all organisations across all sectors? There remains a lot of work to be done, and while IT will help, we need to fix a lot of intrinsic non-IT information management problems first.

AidData is a promising development. Let’s hope there will be more.

Paper on Data Quality in Remote Monitoring at Evaluation 2013

Our work on Remote Monitoring will be a paper at the American Evaluation Association Annual Conference Evaluation 2013:

Remote Monitoring in Somalia and Eastern Burma: a Comparative Analysis


Mona Fetouh, United Nations
Volker Hüls, Making Aid Work
Christian Balslev-Olesen, Danish Church Aid

Abstract: As aid agencies contend with increased risks and diminishing humanitarian space globally, they have had to adopt more flexible methods of aid delivery, monitoring, and evaluation. This paper examines experiences of UNICEF, International Rescue Committee, and The Border Consortium in Somalia and Eastern Burma–environments characterized by restricted access and heavy reliance by international aid organisations on local partners. Because of these factors hindering direct access for monitoring visits, these agencies tested and developed a number of familiar and new channels to collect and validate monitoring information in remote management situations. The presentation comes from a practitioner’s perspective, and contributes to the small but growing knowledge base on M&E in emergency contexts.

I will post the link to the paper when it is out

Urban Disaster Risk Reduction – the case for civil protection skills

More and more often disasters affect urban populations in developing countries. There are simply more people at much higher density in cities and towns than in rural areas. And the poorest often live in inadequate housing or in unsuitable locations (prone to flooding or landslides etc.) because these are most affordable.

The aid community has understood this, and there is now a lot of practical work and thinking about how best to respond to disasters in urban areas. This addresses primarily the post-disaster response from the outside, and not necessarily how the people having to live in these areas can practice better disaster risk reduction.

At the same time, however, there are efforts to strengthen the resilience of these communities. A good way to do this is through educating children. DRR is now integrated to some extent in many school curricula in poor and middle-income countries at risk, although to different levels. A study last year by UNICEF and UNESCO in thirty countries shows that most often disaster-related teaching is most commonly found in the natural science, the geography, and the social science cluster of subjects. Only in two cases Disaster Risk Reduction was a dedicated subject, and only four countries have actual practical skills building in the curriculum, with disaster risk reduction being under Life Skills or even a dedicated civil protection subject as is the case in Cuba.

Much can be said for the latter, unfortunately rare way of approaching this. Coming from a country (Germany) with a strong culture of volunteer civil protection myself I firmly believe in the value of having a sizeable proportion of the community trained as fire fighters, first aiders, or civil protection volunteers. This to a large extent is driven by history, but has resulted in a comparatively high readiness of the general population for natural disasters. The severe and widespread floods a few months ago are a case in point – they were not simply managed well because Germany has the financial resources, they were mostly managed well because it can mobilise local volunteers almost instantly and for protracted periods.

While this is an example from a highly developed country, I would like to come back to Cuba. Cuba, a middle-income country at the lower end of the spectrum, has a similar level of readiness and preparedness for natural disasters, and has as a consequence dealt much better with recent tropical storms than most of its neighbours. Critics will point out that Cuba is also not necessarily a free society, but from what little I can see that doesn’t mean that the efforts that the country puts into civil protection (including a dedicated training period in schools) are necessarily forced upon the population.

The bottom line, and the argument I would like to make with this post, is that there is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If kids grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. Because it doesn’t matter how good the outside response is, and how much better international aid organisations are now geared towards urban disasters, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives.

I therefore think that we should invest much more in training urban communities in poor countries in dedicated civil protection skills, maybe to the extent of establishing organised structures. This could be through the existing Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies. This can and should start in schools, because as we know from life skills education, kids can make a lot of difference at home and in their community with what they learn in school.

Is Results-based Management worth it?


This blog post looks at the penetration of RBM in donor policies and asks if it actually pays off. Interestingly, a concern raised is the loss of ‘big picture’ perspectives, with a prevailing interest of donors to track their individual contributions. While wanting to track contributions is understandable, and needed to be accountable to one’s own taxpayers, it perpetuates sector-and portfolio thinking. This inevitably limits the effectiveness of results. I am not a big fan of big declarations, but Paris, Accra etc. were needed, and supposed to change that. Unless we are willing to let go of our individual area of interest and agree to pool our efforts to achieve more, results are not going to get better. 
On a different note – seeing RBM being looked at purely from a donor’s perspective is unfortunately common. While RBM was pushed a lot by donors for better upwards accountability the real objective is surely better results – i.e. downwards accountability, to the people. And this is where we see lack of complementarity (a main tenet of RBM), and continuation of sector and donor silos that do not look like they are going to go away soon. So is RBM paying off? And for who? It seems for now it has mostly improved upwards accountability for individual donors, a far cry from what it could achieve. 

‘BIG DATA’ – useful in humanitarian response?

I just read this article on Big Data in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. While reading, I wondered if there is something we can learn for IT in humanitarian response. I can see some potential in getting information that is helpful for early warning or even actual response from using big data in addition to specific assessments and surveys. An example I can think of is correlating mobile payment stats (mobile money is now pretty universal in countries like Kenya and used by virtually everyone) with livelihood early warning systems, as it could give an early indication of livelihoods changing (e.g. more money being sent from the city to the countryside could indicate a worsening situation).