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Rethinking Humanitarian Relief: Sourcing Locally Before Disaster Strikes

Rather than a cash flood in the wake of disaster, Advance Aid advocates for "disaster security"—connecting relief with longterm development goals.

When disaster strikes a place like Haiti, Somalia, or Indonesia, the response in the developed world usually follows a similar trajectory: massive aid appeal from local NGOs supported by celebrity faces, a large influx of funds from reliably generous Americans, and an eventual petering out of urgent media coverage in the ensuing weeks.

While media coverage of international tragedies may appear to reach saturation levels at times, the story of how those aid dollars affect local economies is not so well told.

“After a disaster, there is more money [from donors] than you can shake a stick at,” says Howard Sharman, senior consultant for the UK-based relief project Advance Aid. “What happens then is all the NGOs that are responding to the crisis go shopping for the same things in the same places. And what happens in any market when everyone’s shopping for the same product? The price goes up.”

This model of disaster and emergency response is fatally flawed, according to Sharman. To address that, Advance Aid aims to fundamentally change the procurement of emergency supplies.

Advance Aid, which primarily works in east Africa, serves as an intermediary between local, African manufacturers and large aid organizations such as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services. By building stockpiles of locally produced, non-food emergency supplies like tarpaulins, buckets, blankets, and mosquito nets, Advance Aid hopes to eliminate the high financial and environmental cost of cargo planes and to stimulate local African economies by creating jobs.

While it makes good sense to source emergency goods from local suppliers, it’s often cheaper to buy Chinese-supplied tarps, even if disaster strikes just up the river from an African company. A further complication is the fact that NGOs all have differing specifications for their supplies: A World Vision bucket is different from an Oxfam bucket. Local manufacturers struggle to know what to make and how much. To address this, Advance Aid is building a consortium of aid agencies willing to standardize specs of emergency supplies, fundraise jointly, and pre-position aid supplies in various hubs around the continent.

In a larger sense, Advance Aid is also trying to reconcile the two components of humanitarian aid—emergency response funds and long-term development funds—which are currently “running in parallel but not talking to each other.”

Just as countries require food security, Sharman said, they also need disaster security, or the ability to respond to their own disasters. He uses the examples of the Chilean and Haiti earthquakes—both of similar magnitudes—but the latter required far more foreign aid than the former.

“Development is part of responding to disasters,” Sharman said. “So why not try and functionally link the humanitarian agenda and the development agenda and make sure some of the humanitarian money gets spent in a development context?”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Oxfam East Africa

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