The Future of Relief


Mass Capacity


“In large part, the future of humanitarian action lies not in the North, but in the diverse array of local, national, and regional authorities, and civil society and religious organizations in the countries where conflicts continue and disasters strike. Building their capacity must be central to humanitarian action, as capacity building has been in development for years.” (Local Capacity in Humanitarian Response, Oxfam).

“The understanding of the need to change the business model for humanitarian assistance is spreading. The new business model will retain the traditional characteristics, ethical and legal principles of humanitarian action and link them to the broader context of poverty, vulnerability, and poor governance. “The default mode of a new vulnerability and protection model should be self- reliance. A requirement of this new model is to enhance the capacities, readiness, and resilience of exposed societies so they can better handle extreme events.” 

(Simon Maxwell, A New Business Model for Humanitarian Assistance).  

G.A.I.-H.E.G. EMTs Drill on Basic Life Support at College Florentine 2012

Beyond Humanitarianism: Mass Capacity

What is a Disaster?

A disaster can be man-made or environmental, but in both cases, most “disasters” are the result of governments not having policies in place, and not having developed the appropriate means to cope with a catastrophic event. Disaster is therefore the result of bad policy, or no policy coupled with, and often complicated by, varying degrees of inadequate response. It is a disruption of multiple system aspects, requiring outside assistance and overwhelming the capabilities of a state actor to manage the ramifications of the event. Or, it is caused by the very state actor supposedly charged with protecting the population of their respective states such as when a state makes war on its own people.

Most predictions now coming from the scientific and humanitarian sectors concerning the future of climate change (compounded by mounting political instability) make bleak predictions of our human resilience and collective capacity. These predictions come at the same time as realizations mount that armed actors no longer view Humanitarian workers as neutral parties, but as “force multipliers” and valid targets. For the veneer and pretext of “apolitical aid” seems quite well understood as a false if not naïve paradigm. Someone’s government, or some interest group are always generating the resources.  The same phenomena of dependency, destabilization and debilitation fostered by national welfare programs are only magnified by international aid on a more colossal scale. Disasters have the likelihood of increasing in scope as human governance systems become less capable of reacting to them. The resources Western Humanitarian actors have to work with will become less abundant.      

Impactful disasters throughout world history do not only expose total lack of preparedness and out right neglect in alleged governance; they are also openings; moments where collective grief can be organized into more than “resilience” or “relief”, but propel a population from exposure, suffering and a state of perpetual rights violations into one of Mass Capacity; the ability of a people to control their own means of relief and development via investment in civil service infrastructure.

Impactful Disasters/ Constructive Reactions

Looking at the history of Humanitarianism what events have had the most impact on the sector and on the world and why?

Famines in India have historically caused an estimated 60 million deaths over the course of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. During the draught and subsequent famine in the early 18th century the British Colonial authorities conducted a debate around appropriate response to these famines. Would aid disrupt market and create greater problems going forward? The East India Corporation; the British trade organization ruling India until 1948 observed periodic manifestations of the draught, famine and related mass starvation. With the amount of people suffering, a social movement might change the political order and threaten British imperial assets. Relief measures were thus instituted and food security aid was provided with the purpose of social control. From 1845-1852 when the Irish Potato Famine struck the British authorities took a different stance. They decided not to intervene. Ireland was a net exporter of grain throughout the famine period. Over one million people starved, one million emigrated, and the population was reduced by 25%.

If markets were flooded with relief and food aid it would be disruptive to British economy. 

Those that would like to look first and only at the 1859 Battle of Solferino, from which the actions of Henri Dunant and subsequent formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and the 1864 codification of the Rules of War were created in Geneva; that is a form of Western centric revisionism. The 12 nations that via congresses in Geneva laid the foundation of International Humanitarian Law; were also those that via Slavery, Colonialism and the two World Wars are those most responsible for denigrating global human rights.

If the Humanitarian Aid narrative that is pleasing to Northern NGO is that humanitarianism stems from Solferino, that aid was constructed without any political intent and that the failures of recent responses are issues of “participation”, “inclusions” and “local capacity”; then you are embracing a world view shared perhaps only by those that currently fund the modern Humanitarian response; the global North. Who, like 18th century Britain will aid when it suits national interest or completely ignore when it does not. And these Humanitarian actors whether they will admit it or not are beholden to those that control their purse strings.

Governments in the global North with explicit and competing national interests. 

Whose narrative you subscribe to is a question of politics. Ignoring that other narratives exist is an act of criminal negligence from a sector so openly proclaiming to be neutral and impartial. As well as “listening”. Perhaps more interesting than the Battle of Solferino, the Geneva Convention or more importantly the 1945 formation of the United Nations Apparatus; and beginning of the Cold War INGO proliferation were three more recent milestones not necessarily only show casing the growing Southern resilience, but illustrating the beak down of whatever Northern consensus remains.

If after Solferino and the two World Wars many high minded documents were created with corresponding protocols and frameworks were drafted; they were dictated North to South in the legal language of Western liberal values. Observing the African holocaust of the last twelve years and the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti we see just how unprepared the Humanitarian INGO modal is for realities on the ground. I draw attention to two landmarks that will continue to shape Southern Humanitarianism and a period referred to as the African Catastrophe, followed by a short recap on the lessons drawn from the earthquake in Haiti.  

1974 Formation of BRAC

In 1970 the Bhola Cyclone hit Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and killed between 300,000-500,000 people, the deadliest cyclone then on record. This catastrophe and the mishandling of both preparedness and relief by Pakistan (along with numerous underlying grievances triggered the Bangladeshi Liberation War; a nine month struggle punctuated with mass rape and atrocity in which an estimated 300,000 more people were killed and the country reduced to ruins.

The 1974 formation of BRAC marked the birth of the world’s largest INGO, one based in the global South and funded 80% via social enterprises the movement controls. BRAC which is considered a state within a state (para-state) in Bangladesh currently operates in 12 of the least developed nation’s on earth with over 100 million paid employees relies on a capacity building modal that takes full control of all aspects of social service provision, trains the people it serves to administer the services, and fulfils all of the obligations of a state without harnessing that towards political power.

BRAC was build out of the independence struggle with Pakistan which devastated the people and country. Bangladesh which has been wracked repeatedly by flooding and cyclones is also the fourth poorest nation on earth. The radical, apolitical theory of BRAC invests in the ultra-poor via education, health, micro lending, economic mutual aid, and social entrepreneurship. BRAC which serves an estimated 126 million people around the world focuses its capacity building programs on women and girls.

BRAC would not necessarily consider itself a humanitarian effort, or a capacity building one. Its modal which is quickly spreading is about South-South empowerment in the face of natural disaster and failed states. BRAC is pioneering capacity modals that are radical departures from Northern Development, Aid and Relief paradigms. They are holistic and they are truly apolitical in that those that pay for them are those they serve.  BRAC is currently active in all 64 districts of Bangladesh as well as operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti and the Philippines.

1999 Formation of ELAM

ELAM was established in 1999 immediately after the 1998 devastation of Hurricane Georges and Mitch which killed over 19,325 people in various Central American countries and caused billions of dollars of infrastructure damage. 

The Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), Latin American School of Medicine (LASM is the world’s largest medical school and is based in the nation of Cuba. Despite being an island nation of under 11 million people isolated under US embargo since 1960 without any natural resources; Cuba has managed to project military and development influence highly disproportionate to its size. Since the 1959 revolution Cuba has embraced a program it calls “Medical Internationalism”.

Medical Internationalism and Medical Diplomacy are the foundation of the modern Cuban social system and economy. Investment in medical capacity has made Cuba the premier apparatus on earth to train the poor in the care for their own health. As well as build developing nation’s direct ability to care for their own citizens via mass training of physicians.

 Although most of the Cuban population lives on the equivalent of 15 USD a month; Cuba has achieved life expectancy/ infant mortality rates surpassing the United States, 99% literacy, and complete subsidized healthcare system for its citizens. Cuba has also maintains deployment of an estimated 44,000 health workers abroad; MDs, RNs, Community Health and Development workers deployed throughout the developing world in 103 countries; at least 21,000 of which are physicians. That is more medical personnel working abroad than all G8 nations combined. 

Currently ELAM has 40,000 people training as physicians in Spanish and French in Cuba from 41 different countries mostly on scholarship from other developing nations. An ELAM sister school is being built in Venezuela; the largest bilateral trading partner with Cuba of medical workers for oil. 

What remains remarkable about ELAM is not its scale and scope, but that like BRAC’s economic modal the Cuban Medical system aims to exponentially increase capacity in the realm of health among those most affected by disaster. 

The African Catastrophe/ The most lethal Human Disaster

We will not attempt to proscribe blame or any detailed causality here; suffice to say that even the most insulated apathetic individual is aware that most nations of sub-Saharan African exist in an ongoing state of Humanitarian emergency, most man made and most colonial in origin.

Several rounds of civil war in Algeria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Angola had by early 90’s taken the lives of millions while simultaneously blocking access of Humanitarian actors to brutalized and starving populations. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia resulted in by comparison a mere 18 US Military Combat deaths, 80 wounded, and one helicopter pilot captured among the U.S. raid party and rescue forces. Though several thousand Somalis died the event was pivotal to non-response in catastrophe’s to come. Somalia would cease to have a central government to this very day and the US would stay out of military interventions in Africa.

In 1994 800,000 to a million mostly Tutsi civilians were butchered over 100 days in Rwanda by a Hutu government supported by the development enterprise. After the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front took power halting the genocide; over two million Hutu, many of which were perpetrators of that genocide took refuge in Zaire (DRC). 50,000 Hutu refugees subsequently died of cholera in camps. INGOs became aware that they were directly aiding the genocidaires and began cutting off aid. In 1998 Rwanda leads a multi-national attack on Zaire (DRC). The ongoing conflict has killed over 5.4 million people and propagated armed factions all over the region.

In the state of Darfur, Sudan beginning in 2004 the government mounted a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide which has targeted un-armed civilians and killed over 400,000. The country has split in two and recently Sudan threw out all foreign INGOs. The genocide has continued without any serious external intervention. In Somalia in 2010-2011, still without a government, wracked by Islamist violence and anarchy more than 270,000 died in a famine. 

We realize that round numbers mean unclear body counts. Taken as a whole what is happening now on the African continent is a holocaust; the most telling indictment of the Humanitarian sector. Failure to access has been coupled with near total failure to engage local capacity and strengthen it. A spiral of man-made disasters shows no sign of stopping. 

2010 Earthquake in Haiti/ The most lethal environmental disaster

On January 12th, 2010 a 7.0 scale earthquake in Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, reduced the capital Port-Au-Prince to rubble and killed as many as 316,000 people while simultaneously knocking out what remained of the country’s decrepit infrastructure; hospitals, schools, utilities, roads as well as the largest port and only international airport were gone.

Examining and comparing the earthquake in Chile (8.8) which occurred shortly after we clearly see all the difference investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) makes. Having building codes, having developed an emergency response system, having policies and procedures anticipating risk; a similar higher earthquake killed 802 in Chile and did little permanent infrastructure damage. Also striking was the subsequent NGO proliferation in Haiti; an estimated 10,800 NGOs operating in country and a total substitution effect removing any Haitian government responsibility to operate its own functional social services. After that the DRR illustrative comparison wears thin because the two nations are incomparable. Only 2 % of US donor money went to the Haitian government. The single largest application of relief funds, some 224 million USD was to fund the creation of a 20,000-65,000 worker garment assembly plant in the north of the country, the Caracol Industrial Park, nowhere near the destruction in Port-Au-Prince.

There have been dozens of studies commissioned on what went wrong or right with the 2010 Humanitarian response. There was a common theme over and understated in various ways; there was virtually no effort to enlist the population in their own relief effort. There was a critical break down in the collaborative process; the cluster system is not effective. There was complete circumvention of local capacity as if none existed. It seemed deliberate as the largest organized political party and grassroots movement Famni Lavalas is illegal and banned from political participation. The fact that death toll ranges from 100,000 to 316,000 indicates that no one even really knows how many people there were in the country. 

Perhaps Africa is so overwhelming to the Northern Aid worker because it is the political result of actions taken by the very countries that currently fund aid and humanitarian relief; those of the United States and Europe. Or, the scale of its ongoing violence has outpaced the political resolve to intervene. Haiti however is an embarrassment of a different kind. All of the most sophisticated INGOs failing to provide meaningful development and all of the most advanced Humanitarian responders outright ignoring the people they arrived to rescue. All of this in light of the Duvalier father son dictatorship financed by the United States that drove the country into deeper poverty, an estimated 21 billion USD indemnity to France that the country paid well into the 1940’s. The 2004 abduction of Haiti’s first democratically elected President Bertrand Aristede by US marines.  

All well documented for the whole Southern world to see. Repeated tragedy compounded with repeated humiliation. To divorce the future of Humanitarian response from history and politics denies the beneficiaries the validation of their narrative; their historic experience.

Three Major Trends

What trends will have the most impact on the future of Humanitarianism?

There are trends emerging from the South that can find common cause with realizations coming from the North, if the North can truly listen. Often Northern INGOs will take hyper counter intuitive measures, even with the best of intentions and refuse to learn. If the old guard of Humanitarian actors truly wish to be brokers not dictators they should develop operational capability to match their calls to build “capacity.”

  • Mass Capacity Building.” (MCB)

By providing vocational training to thousands of unemployed citizens of a developing nation you are making a direct capacity investment in human capital while improving the nation’s civil service sector. These investments cannot be made in single vocation enterprises but must generate an interdependent framework for a nation to build a sector of service provision for their population non-dependant on state funds, NGO technical expertise, or private capital. What differentiates Mass Capacity training from Development Capacity is four components. A) Its focus on professions such as sanitation, fire suppression, law enforcement, EMS, education, and civil engineering that play a direct role in localized implementation of DRR; b) formation of emergency groups that can be activated during disasters with clearly established roles in country; c) module based multi-vocational training designed to develop a civil service in country, and d) organization of these service via social enterprises to fund them without politics or dependency. 

  • Para-State Infrastructure Investment.” (PSII)

In nations with predatory or non-functional states with proven tendency to engage in democide, civil war, endemic corruption and human rights violations; para-state institutions are to be developed to assume control of critical state functionalities via a networked federation of social enterprises and grassroots organizations based in communities they support.

  • “Deputization.” 

Deputization is the immediate enlistment of disaster effected populations in the relief efforts. This entails that Humanitarian response INGOs have developed a civilian reserve of Medical, Security and Logistics personnel that can carry out response in the language of the people affected. Coupled with stronger intelligence on community based organizations, social dynamics and political realities; deploying with pre-organinizied Deputization packages humanitarian responders can quickly multiply impact and relief. Deputization IS NOT cash-for-work. It is arriving with trained personnel that can with uniforms, pay-roll and on site training utilize a hybrid version of the National Incident Command System to enlist local civilians, affiliated or not with CBOs into the efforts of relief.  

Critiques of Northern Standards

If one had the opportunity to change the words of the Humanitarian Charter, Sphere Standards, or Code of Conduct would you? What would you change?

It is less about what words might change and more about what legal mechanisms hold INGOs accountable to the populations they serve. There is very little objectionable language in these widely embraced documents. A good question is who holds the INGO to the standards laid out? It is not likely to be a popular concept that an organization could be audited for their failure to maintain a set standard. It is not about excluding players from the field of response or denying the humanitarian imperative. More specifically it is about two components; accountability to those being aided and operational capability to deliver meaningful response. 

International and local actors unable to meet Sphere Standards can still be incorporated into response, but they should not ever be leading one. Actors especially those traveling from North to South must seek out local leadership; invest in local expertise and intelligence beforehand. The language is all coming from the right place in Conduct, Sphere, and Charter but the capacity claims must be met before the disaster strikes. DRR must take the form of training and organizational capability enhancement on the most local level. The vision of Mass Capacity is in line with all aspects of these documents and the broader development enterprise but to implement it requires a shift in thinking. Vision guided by humility in which those with recourses make themselves truly accountable to those they exist to help. 

Humanitarian Code of Conduct:

“The humanitarian imperative comes first (1),” but should not impede a serious grounding in the cultural context, poetics and history of those you serve. (3) “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities.” But that is wholly naïve concept with such a full playing field of government funded and religiously motivated actors. (4) We shall endeavor not to act as instruments of government foreign policy NGHAs are agencies which act independently from governments.  But the choice remains in undermining weak states, validating the human rights violations of others in order to operate, and making all the bank room deals that allow response to occur. “In order to protect our independence we will seek to avoid dependence upon a single funding source.” Transparency is not just open books it is inviting the community to read them. (5) “We shall respect culture and custom” respect it best by hiring local and utilizing personnel with necessary mastery of language and local custom. (6) “We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities”. It’s more than an attempt it is pervious well thought out drawn up plan to train local people in tangible skills needed to foster DRR, preparedness and eventually development. (7) “Ways shall be found to involve program beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.” And that is largely about organizing them before disaster strikes and treating them as people not as “beneficiaries”. (9) “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.” And admittedly that is most about keeping lines of communication open and being actually transparent. (10) “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.” And that speaks volumes as to the mainstream mindset of the sector.

Sphere Standards Notes: 

The four basic Protection Principles that inform all humanitarian action are reiterations of material found in the Humanitarian charter, but said more succinctly.  (1) “Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions”, one would really hope. (2) “Ensure people’s access to impartial assistance”. And the 3rd and 4th are more explicitly proactive as the responder is urged to actually “protect people form harm” and “assist people to claim their rights”. The demonstration is all in the actions not the rhetoric.  

The most important aspect of Sphere is that if gives very precise requirements for what must be provided in a Humanitarian response if an actor seeks to fill a role. It outlines the minimum requirements of the collective response as well as the details of the operational component. This standardization allows for future accountability and encourages all responders to develop the operational capacity to meet the minimum core standards. 

Conclusion/ Recommendations

My conclusions are not different from those made by Oxfam, Sphere or the IRCRC. We are however more specific in that every actionable organization should feel obligation and take steps to invest in mass capacity instead of simply incorporation of DRR into ongoing operations. This will require investment in training modules for both deputization and long term capacity development of emergency response. Food/cash for work programs are humiliating. 

The mandate of humanitarian actors must move beyond the immediacy of the latest state of emergency and put the resources into the hands of local actors who can utilize the skills and training as a contribution to civil society as well as for when disaster strikes.

To embrace Sphere is also to acknowledge that most local actors will not be able to meet those standards without outside support and that support cannot be transferred in the chaos of an immediate response. Deputization is stop gap maneuver not a capacity measure, but those that emerge to aid the rescuers and response should be seen as the most viable candidates for future capacity efforts. 

We make three recommendations that we hope will bring the future of Humanitarian response into compliance with Sphere and under the meaningful leadership of beneficiaries;

  1. Mandatory cross-sector investment in Mass Capacity Modules; operational commitment of all Humanitarian and Development actors to introduce training modules that impart tangible needed skills for provision of social services and emergency response to local actors; as well as training in the organizational capacity to respond to local emergencies.
  2. Implementation of Module based capacity building at all stages of development enterprise and humanitarian sector.
  3. Mandatory commitment to Sphere Standards/ Humanitarian code and implementation of a UN-ICC Monitoring Commission to provide oversight and accountability via an international judiciary for NGOS, INGOS and State Actors that exhibit gross negligence or criminal liability in the realms of preparedness or humanitarian response. This special court would be a platform for grievances and redress for beneficiaries harmed via action or inaction of the agencies charged with conducting response.   

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