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  • Writer's pictureNery Duarte

When Humanitarian Assistance is Hindered

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

On Haiti and Lebanon humanitarian assistance challenges.

Ten years ago, I was invited to share at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. I was to give a report on the challenges of our organization’s was confronting in providing humanitarian assistance into Haiti. It is kind of compelling to find out that my observations are relevant to the humanitarian response challenges relief agencies are today facing in Lebanon.

Humanitarian assistance is intended to bring relief to people affected by natural or manmade disasters. Unfortunately, when all contextual issues are not taken into account, the aid which is intended to bring relief to people can also bring woe to both the donors and/or to the recipients. Because of this, the humanitarian industry has worked hard in developing codes, standards, and strategies to diminish the negative impact that humanitarian aid may cause. However, in practice we are still a long way from understanding the limitations, mandates, and complexities of humanitarian relief assistance—with respect to both donors and targeted recipients. The goal of this article is to explore the scope and limitations of humanitarian assistance in a deliberate effort to promote a “do no harm” approach for implementation and delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian assistance is hindered when there is no competent governance. The primary responsibility for the welfare of the communities affected by calamities lies with the communities and their governments. This responsibility must be thoroughly recognized and embraced by the national political leadership. Each government is morally responsible to ensure adequate minimum care for the people they rule. Humanitarian and relief agencies can only go as far and as fast as local governments allow them. In the case of failed or near-failed states, the prompt delivery of humanitarian relief aid can be challenging for humanitarian agencies. This is because relief often has to be disbursed at the same time that legalities and priorities are being worked out by the political leadership. This process itself can be at times problematic and contradictory. Humanitarian agencies need to take it one step at a time since the prompt delivery of aid can only be as efficient as the next person in the bureaucratic hierarchy in charge of interpreting or implementing legalities or priorities. This may mean that a single bureaucrat in a port of entry or operations center can delay very urgent humanitarian assistance for endless days and even weeks, while he seeks to comply with or understand constantly changing regulations or mandates that surface. Relief agencies depend greatly on the local government for the timely delivery of relief. Thus, local government has the serious responsibility to create the legal and operational frameworks that will allow the humanitarian agencies to operate in a timely and efficient manner.

On one occasion, I led a convoy of humanitarian aid into a country suffering from the aftermath of a hurricane. I sent all pertinent documentation ahead of time. Upon arrival at the border, custom officers were already waiting for our convoy. We cleared the border within half an hour and arrived in the capital, where the airport civil defense authorities had an airplane waiting for our supplies. The last runs were done by a couple of helicopters which were also coordinated by local authorities. At the other end, 400 families received badly needed relief supplies within 24 hours of my departure. In contrast, in another country hit by a disaster, we had a boat-full of food supplies sitting in the port of entry for four weeks while clearance papers were worked out and then interpreted by port authorities. After four weeks, it took another five weeks to do an inventory and clearance plus a number of weeks to deliver the aid. Finally, after at least three months, the relief aid was delivered to the community; however, on top of all these delays, a very poor distribution strategy by local authorities resulted in further delays.

Humanitarian assistance is hindered when donors and recipients have no understanding of its costs. Under normal circumstances, a community receives commodities such as food through an existing logistical network. The community has existing transport roads, ports, and infrastructure such as warehouses, stores, schools, hospitals, etc. During an emergency, all this structure can be partially or totally affected. This requires aid agencies and governments to rehabilitate or rebuild all the logistical structure so that goods and services can be delivered on a timely basis. This can be a costly affair.

For instance, supplies which previously had been sent by ground must be sent by air with a corresponding higher cost. When ground logistics are compromised, a logistical structure to hold and distribute relief supplies has to be restored and put in place, such as warehousing, inventory, security, and an appropriate distribution plan. Added to this, humanitarian agencies, which rely on donors’ trust, must go to great lengths to ensure all the relief processes have adequate accountability.

Another example of the high cost of aid: A local government which normally might spend $100 dollars per month to ensure adequate education for a child can no longer do so after a tragedy. The cost could increase considerably given the fact that the infrastructure which was previously in place now needs to be restored or rebuilt. This would also be the case with services such as shelter, health, food and agriculture, security, etc. Haiti is presently challenged by the high cost of shelter. In order to provide housing to thousands of homeless families, the government needs to include in their budgets the costs of acquiring or restoring appropriate land along with services such as electricity, water and sanitation, access roads, parks, schools, hospitals, security, etc. Taking all of this into consideration, the actual cost of building a single transitional home post-disaster in Haiti is more than it would to build a home prior to the disaster. The investment to build and restore all the services related to the adequate functioning of a community is a very significant and costly business. These efforts should also take into consideration the restoration or support for community employment and the commerce industry, etc. As such, relief agencies must rely on the political and operational functionality of the national and local authorities since agencies are unable to bear the cost alone.

Yet another example is the delivery of food aid and medicines to people affected by calamities. This can also be a costly affair, since implementation of the delivery requires construction of an entire logistics network to provide prompt aid. In addition, food, as well as medical aid, is particularly dependent on sanitation and time constraints. Expiration dates or contamination due to weather, lack of hygiene or a break in the cold chain can make delivery even more expensive.

Humanitarian assistance is hindered when it is not accompanied by a risk reduction and resilience building strategy. Factors which cause humanitarian tragedies can be prevented or at least mitigated so that tragedy does not strike in the first place. Conversely, if it does, at least the communities are well prepared to rebound to normality. In communities where neither prevention nor mitigation efforts have been enforced, the effects of the tragedy can be all the more profound and expansive. Building dams can prevent flooding; immunization and education campaigns can prevent the spread of deadly diseases; adequate early warning systems can mitigate damages during a storm; appropriate building techniques can mitigate the effects of earthquakes. Building community awareness of risks and vulnerabilities using risk mapping and addressing priority challenges can mitigate emergency impacts, etc. It would be an appropriate strategy if governments and humanitarian agencies included elements of economic development planning in their response. Such considerations would contribute to the prevention and mitigation aspects of their relief programs so they would not have to repeatedly deal with the same issues in the event of a tragedy striking again.

When humanitarian aid is delivered to a community, it should be accompanied by tools and strategies that are assured to do no harm, and that recognize and address all of the factors which further exacerbate the community’s vulnerability during a tragedy. As an example, before the earthquake, Haiti had rather poor urban building plans and codes. As a result, many of the homes and public buildings collapsed during the earthquake. When providing infrastructure and shelter aid to Haitians, aid agencies should strongly advocate and incorporate appropriate building and security codes so that same tragedy does not repeat, or at the very least, is mitigated.

Humanitarian assistance is hindered when it is not accompanied by a development strategy. Humanitarian aid is mainly intended to bring temporary relief to people affected by tragedy. The more underdeveloped the area affected, the greater the investment to bring it back to a path of recovery. The recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti are good examples, although both countries suffered billions of dollars in damage. Chile has been able to bounce back from the tragedy, although its development course will be affected to a certain extent. At the same time, it will take Haiti years to get back on its feet. Humanitarian relief is intended to give people basic short-term survival tools, while development aid is intended to create the structure for people to build their own tools in order to ensure dignified and sustainable well-being.

Investing in development means creating the enabling conditions for people to become self-sufficient. A government that does not have a strategy to create self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods will have to keep providing aid to its citizens indefinitely. The providers of humanitarian aid need to carefully and continually evaluate the extent of aid provided since there is the danger in creating too much comfort for the beneficiaries—thus hindering their own ability to look after themselves and thereby creating conditions of dependency. As Einstein once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Unfortunately, at times this may only happen when a humanitarian relief agency leaves, it is only then that aid recipients may begin to develop their own coping mechanisms.

Nery Duarte

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