Humanitarian Aid, with Alphabet Soup on the Side

By Leonard Doyle

DO you ever wonder what happens to those left behind in an emergency once the heart throbs of the media circus, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and his Al Jazeera and BBC clones, move to the next crisis? 

When you press the TV remote to change channels because you cannot bear to watch any more human misfortune flickering across the small screen, do you ever stop to ask: “What becomes of the people walking with all their possessions on their heads when the cameras disappear?” 

The reality is that when people take to their heels and flee their homes because of natural disaster or conflict, they need protection from the elements and food – women are especially vulnerable along with children. Long after the octopus-like camera crews with their reels of cables have packed up and left town, the complex job of ensuring aid is delivered and distributed to vulnerable people continues. 

It’s a challenging and expensive task and when communities have been flattened by a typhoon, earthquake or tsunami it becomes fiendishly complicated. Getting life-saving aid to those displaced by violence in civil war situations - as is happening now in Syria, the DR Congo and Mali – has even more challenges. 

To understand how the emergency response works it’s important to first wrap one’s head around the names and acronyms of the humanitarian system. This can be a challenge. It’s likely that lovers of the English language were not over-represented in late 2004, when responding to criticism about the slowness and inadequacy of the response to Sudan’s Darfur emergency, the UN adopted the “cluster” system to streamline the emergency response. It also dreamt up a cat’s cradle of rules, responsibilities, descriptions and titles and an alphabet soup of acronyms which M*A*S*H. -like are rivaled only by the US military's love of the abbreviation. 

These reforms clarified the roles and responsibilities of organizations in complex emergencies and IOM was handed the responsibility for ensuring that those made homeless by a natural disaster are taken out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. This is known as Camp Coordination and Camp Management or by its less than witty acronym CCCM, a role that involves working with the government, international agencies and the myriad big and small NGOs that pop up after any sizeable emergency.

The responsibilities are huge and they span the globe. Wherever disaster strikes and the 24/7 international news channels send their crews, the likelihood is that sometime beforehand a humanitarian assessment team has been on the ground and aid is already on its way from around the world. The map, below, and another on the blog give an indication of the complexities of delivering aid to some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places.

The unfolding tragedy in Syria has displaced over 2 million civilians to neighboring countries and they need not just immediate lifesaving aid, but also psycho-social support as they try and make sense of their new environment. The same is true in DR Congo and Mali to name two other conflict zones. In the Philippines, meanwhile the impact of one storm in early December 2012 is still being felt by almost a million now homeless people who have also lost their livelihoods due to the destruction of vast agricultural areas. Climate change seems to be behind two deadly typhoons that struck the Philippines within 12 months in places far further south than typically experienced. This portends a whole new category of migrants in some of the most remote places of the world.

As the cluster lead for camp coordination and camp management in emergencies induced by natural disasters IOM is currently active in 18 countries, including Colombia, Haiti, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Thailand and Timor-Leste. It directly   benefits thousands of homeless families by ensuring that the vast tent cities that pop up after emergencies.

Part of the job involves supporting and strengthening the training capacities of local and national authorities, most recently in Namibia, Pakistan, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic.

But before aid can flow there has to be data, on, for example the numbers of people in need and their level or vulnerability. The unsung heroes of almost every emergency are often those trying to work in baking hot tents or if they get lucky in a collection of converted shipping containers, where they organize and dispatch teams of locals to collect data about the families who have been displaced. They then crunch the numbers to produce maps and detailed reports without which the emergency response would quickly descend into chaos. Producing big data sets on a crisis and carefully mapping the results, enables the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in a given crisis to make an urgent appeal for aid, based on facts rather than supposition.  

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM