Shocking images, televisions stuck on the one event, the same words in everyone’s mouth on Monday morning. An earthquake has struck. Distraught individuals in the middle of what remains from their homes, bodies under the rubble, some of them already piling up on the side of the roads, survivors on the roofs without water nor food … The images are hard to stand, but unfortunately so familiar, and reminding us of previous natural disasters: the Philippines, Haiti, Pakistan, the Indonesian Tsunami …
The earthquake that struck Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has all the typical features of a severe but also highly broadcast humanitarian crisis, where widespread sympathy for the country, its people and its culture, as well as the presence of western tourists during the disaster, will have a major spillover effect.
Solidarity gains incredible momentum from this media shock and from the legitimate empathy that the pain of the victims evokes. Governments, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society set off to finance, rescue and coordinate; to help succour, feed and accommodate the victims; and to rebuild a country and a society that have been severely hit by the disaster. Individuals, foundations and enterprises take their share of responsibility in this impetus of solidarity, and mobilize their energies and means to help aid agencies in their relief efforts.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling of déjà-vu. As always happens after serious humanitarian crises, especially those that are widely broadcast, once the striking images fade away what we’ll be left with is the failures of this solidarity impetus, and the missteps committed during the emergency phase and the next phases too.
Far from wanting to curb the momentum, or to play the role of Cassandra in prophesying the next failures, this modest piece aims to remind all of us, through an experienced eye, that past mistakes must serve to improve the management of new crises like the one in Nepal today, and that we need to better channel this impetus of solidarity in order to maximize its impact for the earthquake victims.
The private sector – companies, wealthy individuals, charitable foundations – has a role to play in this type of response, and its engagement is more than welcome: it is necessary. However, to be effective it must be conducted thoughtfully and strategically. While the funds mobilized in such crises can be very large, their distribution is not always optimal.
First, the emergency phase always benefits from more attention and resources, thanks to extensive initial fundraising campaigns, emotive and full of images, and endorsed by the first press conferences of foreign ministers sharing their commitment to the people of Nepal. This initial phase is obviously essential, but what will happen in Nepal in the medium and long term, when the effects of the disaster will still be felt but the media gone? Moreover, some places that are more accessible or exposed in the media will capture more attention, leaving remote villages that are already highly marginalized with little access to aid. Finally, big international humanitarian players, certainly recognized and mostly effective, will capture most of the resources because of their reputation, communication skills and visibility in coordination platforms where institutional funding is negotiated. This allocation of funding will be detrimental for the local players, the ones truly able to pursue the rehabilitation of the country in the long run and to provide its people with the keys to resilience.
The private sector has a great role to play mainly because it enjoys total freedom in the allocation of its funds. It is therefore able to look for implementing partners and projects where it can achieve the biggest impact, where other actors are absent, where there is a structural need for funding between the emergency phase, where the big actors are at their best, and the more complex recovery phase, where smaller actors, mainly the local ones, come into their own.
Getting involved in a major humanitarian crisis, even at the height of the emergency phase, should not be done without deep reflection. Even if the emotion arises in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the response shouldn’t be exclusively concentrated on this emergency phase.
This is where the complexity lies: finding a good balance between what should be delivered immediately and what needs to be done in the longer term, with higher quality standards, appropriate monitoring, and a strategic choice of partners and sectors to support. And all this needs to be well thought out; indeed, the advice of experienced professionals might be an asset.
It may also be useful to recall, even though it may seem obvious, that in an acute emergency phase like the one that Nepal is currently living through, the legitimate desire for solidarity can in no way justify sending inexperienced people, unsolicited goods or technical solutions, or anything else that is not in line with the needs identified by aid professionals and beneficiaries. As experienced too often in the past, the aid community cannot handle what it does not need in the chaos of a major humanitarian disaster.
Eric Berseth is executive director of Philanthropy Advisors, and Vincent Mudry is head of operations.