“How can you afford to spend money and effort on anything but responding to the pressing needs of refugees?” a colleague was once asked in a job interview. Since then, the number of people in need of humanitarian support has further increased.

More than 100 million people need urgent, life-saving humanitarian aid just to survive and more than 60 million have been forced from their homes in the worst displacement crisis since the Second World War.  So why should preparedness be part of humanitarian work?

Well… let me give you three solid reasons:

  1. Preparedness makes a good response: In fact, many if not most responders spend more time preparing to respond than actually responding. A fireman that cannot find his way to the fire, drive his truck or use his hose is worthless. The same is true for humanitarians; preparedness lies at the heart of a timely and effective response.
  2. Someone needs to coordinate preparedness: If a major earthquake would strike a major metropolitan area and the humanitarian system would not be prepared, it would and should most likely receive blame and shame. Imagine yourself in the darkness of the night and the airplane you are in is in distress. You are forced to land on water. No one has briefed you on what to do and how to act. There are no emergency lights guiding you to the nearest exit, there are now life vests, and if you manage to get out of the airplane, no one is coming to find you in the cold dark water. Preparing for humanitarian disasters is everyone’s responsibility, but OCHA is one of the actors shouldering the lead of this process.
  3. It makes financial sense: Sometimes, spending money now can prevent a much bigger expense occurring later. UNICEF and WFP participated in a Return on Investment for Emergency Preparedness Study. It concluded that US$ 5.6 million was invested in 49 preparedness activities and these interventions saved a total of US$ 12 million in future cost in humanitarian response. With preparedness activities showing such results, it is fair to reverse the question and ask; how can we afford NOT to spend money on preparedness for emergencies?

What is preparedness for us?

Much of the work undertaken by OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch (ESB) is preparation for response. In the immediate aftermath of a large-scale sudden-onset emergency, such as an earthquake, the first responders are always the affected communities themselves. Again, in a major emergency, they may often need support from their Government and the international community. Ideally before a very chaotic situation arises, the Government in the affected country already knows what support they can ask for. For example, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams can be deployed to support national authorities in coordinating incoming international assistance within 48 hours. It is crucial that ESB is able to mobilise experts with a shared methodology and appropriate language skills, as well as large volumes of equipment within a short time span. This is simply impossible without extensive preparatory work. Hopefully, the Government in the affected country will also know how they can use the knowledge, skills and materials that will flow into the country upon their request. Part of what we do at ESB is forge relationships before a disaster strikes to ensure a much quicker response, when required.

People affected by emergencies deserve support from effective and professional responders. ESB is working to ensure that staff sent to emergencies can excel at their performance from the get-go. It maintains over rapid response rosters of carefully selected humanitarian staff. These responders are consistently trained, have the necessary vaccinations and are ready to go anywhere in the world within five days. In addition, 14 national partner agencies are ready to deploy within one month. Having this pre-enrolled membership, predictable procedures and funding is critical for a timely life-saving emergency response.

Natural disasters can become dramatic emergencies: a volcano eruption, a wave the size of a house or the earth shaking violently underneath your feet can immediately devastate the lives of thousands of people. However, currently most of OCHA’s staff is responding to complex emergencies, in protracted crises. In both types of emergencies, interaction with the military is essential and should be appropriate. ESB is working relentlessly to improve our ability to coordinate with the military, in a way that is consistent, effective and protects humanitarian principles. Building trust, understanding and networks between humanitarians and relevant military and government stakeholders before disaster strikes is critical for principled humanitarian action and efficient service provision.

You are already working on preparedness – maybe anyway!

In this time of financial constraints, and in life in general we always have to make some sort of prioritisation. Effort spent on preparedness should have a clear link to response. How can we respond quicker? How will we be able to we get access to a marginalised population in a region we can reasonably predict to become flooded? From a regional perspective it might be deciding where to focus your preparedness efforts. A few years ago, OCHA’s Regional Office for Asia (ROAP) prioritised five countries for preparedness work. The Philippines and Nepal – both of which have been since hit by large-scale emergencies – were on that list. Spending limited resources on countries which are exposed to the highest levels of risk is absolutely essential. Similar prioritisation exercises can be undertaken within the country; which region is most likely to require humanitarian support? This is not a game of absolute certainty, but it is one of probability.

If you are involved in humanitarian or development work the on a national level or in the field, you may be familiar with the concept of “Minimum Preparedness Actions” (MPAs). MPAs are often not risk or scenario-specific and usually do not require significant additional resources to accomplish. If you have ever helped to formulate a contingency plan, outlining what everyone should do in case of, for example, floods, storms or a disease outbreak, you have been involved in preparing for an emergency. That’s a good start. If you are intrigued to see how the international community can get organised in support of national preparedness action and save lives, we recommend the Emergency Response Guidance (ERP). The ERP contains the nuts and bolts of preparedness. It is a short, concise document, includes advice and useful templates, which you can use to make sure that you are

Always prepared, never surprised?

Photo credit: OCHA