As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the global development sector still struggles with how to better respond to humanitarian disasters. Each subsequent crisis brings a heightened degree of scrutiny to the effectiveness, cost, coordination, and impact of emergency assistance. And each one brings similar regrets and conclusions.
There are the inevitable calls for increased standards and certifications—part of a broader trend within the humanitarian assistance sector towards greater professionalism. Humanitarian workers come from a broad range of backgrounds. As such, they can bring specific expertise in niche areas such as medicine, logistics, procurement, and grants management. While this diversity can be a strength, it also means that they can lack the skills and tools necessary to work as an adaptive team member in highly complex humanitarian settings.
Few established pathways have been available for individuals and teams to educate themselves and solidify their understanding of how best to operate in complicated field-based environments. In response, many global actors increasingly recognize the importance of standardization in training, particularly as a springboard for greater accountability and coordination.
Standardized competency-based training can help elevate a new caliber of professionalization among the cross-section of professionals in this sector. Well-defined competencies should be based upon the realities of the disaster and humanitarian response workplace, as defined by subject matter experts with the support of instructional designers.
For example, the competencies of first responders should be developed and designed in accordance with the tangible experience of those charged with providing immediate response, recognizing that emergency scenarios consist of multiple overlapping components. While they share some commonalities, the knowledge and techniques necessary for the provision of basic life support—namely the correct care for a trauma patient at the incident site—is distinct from scenarios involving the search, location, and rescue of patients found within collapsed structures.
Beyond just “hard” skills, incident command or search-and-rescue, professionalism depends greatly on several core “soft” skills related to performing in teams, working with imperfect data, and operating in insecure and dangerous environments. More specifically, these competencies might include behavioral principles such as integrity, accountability, empathy, resilience, teamwork, diversity, and communication.
Some also call for international certifications to improve disaster response. However, given the vast number of players involved, from country governments to large international donors to small NGOs, global standards are difficult to agree upon and even more difficult to enforce. Whose certification is best? Whose won’t be accepted? Who is the arbitrator when billions of people and dollars are at risk if you do not permit individuals who might not be certified to support an effort?
One telling example was immediately after the Haitian earthquake when the U.S. military medical responders wanted only U.S. Board-certified physicians to work in Haitian clinics beside them. While the intent behind certification may be good, it can unintentionally narrow things so tightly that people can’t help their own populations. In addition, resources are always an issue in development settings. Who’s going to foot the bill for certification trainings or standardizing systems?
Unfortunately, one of the Sustainable Development Goals should have been disaster preparedness. Having such a high-level objective would help each country to make progress from where they are right now and allow for better coordination from international development groups assisting them.
Such issues are primarily why many humanitarians have adopted the Sphere Principles rather than certification. While any set of guidelines or principles will be far from perfect, these offer a framework that developing countries and development professional can follow and adapt to.
The Sphere Handbook, which was just revised last year to mark its 20th anniversary, outlines four protection principles: 1) Enhance the safety, dignity and rights of people, and avoid exposing them to harm; 2) Ensure people’s access to assistance according to need and without discrimination; 3) Assist people to recover from the physical and psychological effects of threatened or actual violence, coercion or deliberate deprivation; and 4) Help people claim their rights.
We want countries to build their capacity internally with their decisions based on their needs. Providing experts to guide them in their plan and design to achieve whatever international standard they want is key. This is more their decision than ours. And we must recognize that it can take decades to build the capacity to respond internally to domestic disasters.
The development sector is always learning from its mistakes, but those errors can be costly and could be minimized in the first place if hard-won lessons are captured and conveyed in close collaboration with local stakeholders, are sensitive to varying levels of resources available in each location, and are flexible enough to meet countries where they are now.
Karen Walsh is Director of Stabilization at Dexis, where she provides programmatic leadership in security, stabilization, and humanitarian assistance.
Photo by OLIVIER PAPEGNIES/BELGA MAG/Belga