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Development agencies need to move beyond life-saving aid, expert says

Development agencies need to rethink how they deal with disaster situations, an expert told DW. Instead of recreating pre-crisis life, they should stimulate economies so people aren't forced to live off foreign aid.

Immigrants stand next to their tents in an informal refugee camp outside in South Africa in 2008

Making sure people survive is critical, but aid can't stop there

Dr. Peter Walker, the founder of the World Disasters Report, advocated professionalizing the disaster response business, developing both the global Code of Conduct for disaster workers and the Sphere humanitarian standards. He is the director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in the United States, and is involved in research into possible future global drivers of humanitarian crises, and the effectiveness of the international humanitarian system.

He told Deutsche Welle about the changes in mentality that he thinks would make development aid more effective over the long-term.

Deutsche Welle: You have put forward the premise that responding to humanitarian crises is becoming more problematic. What is the problem?

Dr. Peter Walker

Development aid groups need to rethink their strategies, Walker said

Dr. Peter Walker: I think what's becoming problematic is the model we use. The traditional model is that disasters are abnormal. They knock you down, then you have response, and the response puts people back in a position to carry on with normal life. Just like the way we would recover after a car accident. But what the research is showing is that as you have more processes that affect the way our economies work - like climate change, globalization, the increase in organized crime - there is a stress on society, and when there's a crisis it's much larger than it was in the past and it is much more pervasive. It actually changes the direction of development and the way society moves forward. That's very different from what happened in the past.

You almost need to think it's no longer a temporary thing. These crises permanently affect large populations and large parts of the economy, so we need to respond differently. It's not a sideshow anymore. It's actually an integral part of the economies. That means aid agencies have to change the way they think about disaster response: how they work with local governments, how they can do a lot of work beforehand to try and influence the way governments look at risk reduction in their community.

What needs to change?

The analysis that we've done is that the old notion of quick crisis and long-term development is not quite right. You have this body of people in the middle who essentially live off what is tantamount to an international social welfare system - in refugee camps, in internally displaced persons camps. Many of the pastoralist populations around the world are in this state, people who are living on the margins of cities and shanty towns, where there's no obvious way forward in development terms, levels of violence are very high and effectively the main source of livelihood they have is humanitarian assistance. But that's just like being drip-fed in a hospital ward. People don't want to be in that position. People are the same the world over. They want to build a better future for their kids, and so they want to have economic opportunities.

You advocate stimulating the economies of conflict-ridden states even as the conflict unfolds. Is that feasible?

I think we have really got to look again at how we work in these crisis situations. You can't wait for stability before you start development. Somalia hasn't been stable for 20 years; it is not going to be stable. That's the reality. So do you do development there? That's really what agencies should be focusing on – how do you stimulate an economy in high levels of violence so that people have an opportunity.

Can you really stimulate an economy in times of violence?

People in a Darfur refugee camp line up for water

Enabling trade would help those suffering in Darfur

The answer is yes, you can stimulate economies in crisis situations. For instance, we are doing research in Darfur, and one of the things that is obvious in Darfur is that as a region it basically works by trading networks. Different agro-ecological zones, the desert in the north to tropics in the south, you need to trade. Everybody in Darfur knows that, and conflict disrupts that trade. Re-establishing trade and the ability to move is in most people's best interests. Even those who control armed groups, the money has to come from somewhere, and trade is a good thing. You can establish trading networks and get the economy moving again. It takes a bit of lateral thinking about how you're going to do it, but it's possible.

Do you see development agencies thinking on these lines?

I think there's a certain inertia within aid agencies to approach crises in this fashion. It's still easier essentially just to provide social welfare services, and that's absolutely necessary where the alternative is starvation, death from disease or lack of shelter. But how do you build on that to go further? Essentially what our research is showing is that just doing life-saving humanitarian assistance is necessary but not sufficient in these crises.

Who's going to nudge the system in the direction you're suggesting?

What works is trying to change the standards that people expect and the approaches they take. That's actually how most of our systems in the West work. They are not through command and control. They are through ratcheting up people's expectations. The way a health system improves in a country is because as a consumer you expect a certain higher level. You become educated, you know what's available and that moves the system in a certain direction. I think that's the approach: how do you change the expectations within aid agencies of what is good aid.

A Bangladeshi woman holding a mobile phone to her ear

Mobile phone use will let more people's voices be heard

To be honest, it's also going to change because you're going to find that the survivor populations in these areas have the ability to have a say. The influence mobile phones have had in many of these crises in the last few years has been stunning because it enables people to have a voice. That is going to change things dramatically in the next 10 years. The populations that you're serving will not be passive.

You are critical of military humanitarianism, in Afghanistan for instance, suggesting it's a "weapons system" that is not attuned to the people's real concerns.

The purpose of any military system is to try and improve security. You can think of things like money being a weapons system because you can use money to stimulate an economy, to improve security and to bribe people to improve security.

From research we've carried out in our center in Afghanistan recently, when you really started to talk to Afghans about what they thought caused insecurity what really angered them wasn't really poverty. It was the failure of governance. The fact that they felt they didn't have leaders who represented them anymore, that they couldn't trust leadership. Everywhere they turned, they saw corruption and people benefitting from the aid business but not them. One of the things we've realized is that if you're running an aid project where you're trying to spend a lot of money very quickly, in an area you don't know, maybe in a field you haven't worked in very often, it fuels corruption and effectively makes it less secure.

Interview: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam

Editor: Sean Sinico

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