Humanitarian Aid Explained- Relief
Daily we are inundated, through the media, with images of war, death, political instability, famine, etc. It is overwhelming and leaves us feeling powerless and helpless. In our current world, it seems that we move daily from one disaster to another, never grasping all the details of the emergency or its outcome. One emergency may be in the news nonstop and then a few days later it becomes old and is replaced by another emergency. It makes me question what happens to the people in the countries that move out of our news cycle and become old news? Unfortunately, today there are numerous simultaneous natural and manmade disasters occurring globally, making it difficult for us to keep up.
As humanitarian workers, people bounce frequently from one emergency to another. I have been there. I had the privilege of helping in various disasters in recent years and it was a whirlwind that even now I find challenging to process. I would fly into the country of need and hit the ground running. I was charged with helping to develop a rapid response program that could address the immediate needs of the victims; to basically do anything possible to stop people from dying and keep them alive. My colleagues and I would then work nonstop for weeks or months to provide relief and save lives. Then when the funding ended or another greater emergency arose I was on a plane headed there to do the same thing. There are thousands of humanitarian aid workers that live this life. Sadly, the emergencies don’t stop coming so there is always work to do.
This definition encompasses both the relief and development side of humanitarian aid. Both aspects to helping are vital and complex as we will argue in the coming weeks. The question posed is actually how and when relief and development are implemented, resulting in positive or negative impacts on the beneficiaries.
Today I begin with relief. Relief includes the provision of food, water, sanitation, shelter and health services. Relief is essential. In the immediate aftermath of an emergency people suffer and die. If no one helps then more people die. Relief can ease pain and some of the initial suffering. In the early stages of an emergency, most deaths occur due to diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, measles or malaria. All of these issues can be treated fairly easily, arguing for the need of relief workers and supplies. Relief can be brought in by local organizations, sometimes the local government and also international organizations. This process typically happens quickly and aggressively, yet as quickly as the people come in to help, they are gone.
The region in crisis is quickly overwhelmed by big money, multiple vehicles and lots of foreigners prepared to help. This money, the vehicles and the people are critical to keeping people alive. I question though if how the relief is provided is helpful or hurtful to the vulnerable population. In those first essential days of the emergency could preparations be made to ‘begin with the end in mind?” I would argue that much of what is done during the relief phase cripples the victims in the long term when the funding and foreigners are gone.
Because relief happens in a very quick and aggressive manner it can be conducted from a top down approach, meaning that people from far away plan exactly how they can help and exactly how they perceive the situation to be on the ground. They then reach the far away country with the plan in their minds as to how all of this will work. In my opinion, research prior to the relief operations and discussions on the ground with beneficiaries of the aid will help to ensure that the relief is done in a culturally sensitive way that could set up the population for success as they recover. This would equal the playing field by including the victims of the crisis in the planning. Such talks can be brief but very beneficial long term!
Some countries around the world constantly exist in these emergency situations and are constantly in need of relief. They are called complex emergencies. Current areas that exist in a complex emergent state are: Palestine, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Central African Republic. Each one of these places have been heavily impacted by increased violence, displacement, corruption and external influences or attacks by more powerful nations. Even in secure times, the oppression of individuals, in these locations, is a constant disruption to their ability to become self-reliant.
So where do we fit into this? In the past many of our projects have fallen under relief and some have then turned into development projects.
We must consider how we leave the people after we stop working in their country. Are we leaving them alive, but dependent and broken? Or alive, equipped and empowered to start rebuilding their lives?
The situation we face in DRC is complex, in even more ways. It exists in a state that needs consistent relief aid and also intense development aid. Many groups have tried to focus on only one or the other, but they find that the impact is always being influenced by another unmet problem. It is absolutely essential that all work in DRC be focused on producing results that release people from their dependency on the relief and development aid system. This requires that emergency aid be coupled with job/income creation, self-sustaining revenue generation and advocacy against policies that keep specific groups in a constant disadvantage economically and socially.
It is always a complicated situation when countries face emergencies. We responded quickly to the violence in Myanmar, and made a big impact in a short period of time. However we immediately began looking at how we could start building a lasting impact and that can be difficult when no one knows which direction things are going to go. The important part is that the program continues to assess itself so that it can adjust to the needs of the people and their ability to thrive in such difficult emergency situations.
In the coming weeks we are going to discuss how relief and development affect the communities they intend to serve. These are challenging topics but necessary as we seek to serve people in need both at home and around the world.
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