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World

Aid workers learn from past mistakes

Along with governments, humanitarian organizations are often criticized for failing to respond to a catastrophe quickly or efficiently enough. Now there's a handbook to help - and a master's degree to boot.

When media outlets weigh in on the work of humanitarian organizations in disaster zones, they don't always get a good press. Frequent criticisms include the accusation that it takes too long for the machinery of aid to get into gear, and if large numbers of people are needed, the helpers use up resources themselves. Another common critique is that aid workers end up in places where they aren't needed as critically as elsewhere. This last one has often been levelled especially at the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

But humanitarian organizations have learned from mistakes, and in the last 20 years, they've made improvements.

"What works much better today than before, for example, is the analysis of demand - the Joint Needs Assessment," said Dennis Dijkzeul, a professor of crisis management at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. As part of that, the United Nations now works together more actively with NGOs and local authorities to determine what is needed most urgently. They also delegate responsibilities to avoid redundant work.

The destroyed remains of buildings as a result of an earthquake.

Joint Needs Assessment tries to bring aid exactly where it's needed most

When such analyses are not carried out, humanitarian aid often misses its mark, which often happens in the case of search and rescue missions, Dijkzeul told DW.

During the frantic search for survivors after a catastrophe, emergency services do anything to help pull individuals out. "These missions are expensive and mean well, but they result in relatively little, since the people there, on the ground, can often find their own friends and family members faster," said Dijkzeul.

Quality management

Overall, workers at humanitarian organizations are much better educated than before. In Germany, a humanitarian aid master's program was started in 1993 at the Ruhr University.

In addition, quality control standards have been introduced, Dijkzeul says, for medical kits and food packages. The standardized Interagency Emergency Health Kit, for example, contains pain killers, antibiotics, syringes and other surgical tools. Food packs contain a minimum of 2,100 calories. Handbooks that were developed as a direct result of the Rwanda conflict in the 1990s describe, among other things, how to build a shelter or an emergency hospital.

In other words, a principle that has long been known by the commercial sector has now been rediscovered by humanitarian agencies: quality control. More and more projects are attempting to anchor quality management mechanisms throughout their organizations. One of those is the Sphere Project, which was started in 1997 and, using insights from professional aid workers and disaster victims, developed standards for humanitarian help.

Utilizing locals

One of the Sphere Project's core points is the Joints Needs Assessment program, which connects local authorities to those at the scene of a disaster. It doesn't always work perfectly, says Unni Krishnan of the children's humanitarian agency Plan International, and member of the Sphere Project's advisory board. The notion that aid can be more effective when it is not simply imposed on those hit by disasters is one that has gained traction with time - but it is not always implemented in practise.

A woman cooks in a makeshift camp in the city of Grand Goave in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Photo: Juan Carlos

Humanitarian organizations hope there will be standardized housing for people who find themselves homeless

Yet reaching those on the ground is essential. "It can take a while for international aid to arrive. In the first few days it's decisive that people can help themselves," Krishnan told DW. That's why, he added, local authorities should take leadership rolls and hold onto them. Such experience is also crucial for in future crises.

Humanitarian handbook

The Sphere Project's handbook deals with topics such as project organization, measures for saving lives, as well as the provision of water and food. It answers very practical questions such as: How far away from a water source can an emergency shelter be? How much nutrition should a nutritional pack include? How much water do people need?

These standards "were not put together in an office in Geneva or New York, but drawn from the experiences of humanitarian workers and those affected," Krishnan says. Among the organizations on the Sphere Project's board are Aktion Deutschland Hilft, Care International, Caritas, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Oxfam International, and Plan International.

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