“All We Need is a Facility”: Practical Considerations for Humanitarian Aid
Roger Mason PhD – LECMgt
Local governments, public and private institutions are often asked to provide assistance during humanitarian crises. When most people see a critical need they want to fill it in any way they can. This paper will discuss some of the practical issues which should be discussed before succumbing to the temptation of the moment.
I recent watched a news conference where a local government official was making a passionate and emotional plea for immediate action in response to a local humanitarian issue. He proposed a series of actions including using surplus school district property and local city facilities. He never discussed any specific plans for managing, supplying, or caring for the facilities or the persons who would occupy them.
The purpose of this article is not to dissuade public agencies and private organizations from engaging in humanitarian operations. It is intended to provide some practical considerations which should be discussed before embarking on such a course of action.
Relying on Assistance
One of the first considerations is what type of assistance will you receive during the humanitarian operation. Often organizations are approached with “all we need is a facility” request. This is based on the false promise that the only responsibility of that agency will be provided an unused warehouse or mothballed school campus. This is a dangerous premise.
In the example in my introduction the government representative said the shelter would be not be the responsibility of the city but would be managed by local volunteer organizations. There is no doubt that well-meaning and caring volunteers would respond to the call. The problem arises after three or four months. Volunteers are just that, volunteers. They can easily resign or fail to meet their promised commitments.
As the situation continues the needs of the persons being cared for will grow as will the fatigue of the volunteer caregivers. At some point the agency or organization who owns that facility will have to take over more of the management and care of it. The longer the facility is open the greater your involvement will become.
Question of Control and Jurisdiction
If you open your doors you will be giving up control to outside organizations. You should carefully review what these organizations stand for and what they can do. You need clear written agreements between you and whoever is initially managing the facility. You should have a clear understanding of what they will do and how long they will do it.
One of the biggest problems is assuming what an aid organization can and will do. Several years ago a local city had a hand shake agreement with the local school district regarding the use of the high school gym as a disaster shelter. The school would provide the gym and the Red Cross would manage the shelter. Once the disaster hit the shelter opened and the Red Cross began caring for people. The School district attorneys raised an objection. The Red Cross was providing medical aid at the gym and the district insurance specifically forbade offering medical treatment beyond basic first aid on school grounds. Be sure you have worked out these details before you open for humanitarian operations
Every problem associated with caring for the health, welfare, and safety of a community will be magnified during a humanitarian operation. Even the most carefully planned and operated mass shelter can have major issues. Persons living at your shelter or in the care of a humanitarian operation will have every problem and issue that occurs in normal communities.
These include health, emotional welfare, legal/financial issues, crime, substance abuse and a host of other problems. Each person’s personal, social, and community support systems will need to be replaced. Any problems they bring to this situation will become magnified as time passes. This can become a secondary crisis. A short case study can illustrate this problem.
After a regional disaster low income families fled to a local park and set up an encampment. Temporary shelters constructed from everything from camping equipment to disaster debris and shopping carts began to appear. This encampment was allowed to remain in place for several months. During that time it continued to grow in size. It became such a public safety problem that police officers from the local city had to be stationed there 24/7.
The County Public Health department was called regarding several outbreaks of illness. Fearing an outbreak of typhus the health department ordered it closed. The police department was called in to evict the persons encamped in the park. This turned into a very ugly confrontation resulting in numerous people being arrested. What started as a heartfelt gesture to people in need eventually turned into a health, public safety, and PR disaster. You should be preparing for how you will manage these issues from the minute you consider this type of assistance.
Temporary is a Relative Term
A topic that is a easily glossed over is how the long this effort will last. One rule of thumb is the greater the displacement of the persons involved the longer the humanitarian operation will last. There is a rule of thumb when remodeling your home. Determine you budget and the time for the project then double it. For humanitarian projects involving sheltering you should set the budget, triple it and plan for a minimum of a year.
Have a Recovery Plan
Every emergency operations plan should include a recovery plan. Before beginning the humanitarian project you should consider what normal operations (ex: services, instruction, activities) will need to be altered cancelled or curtailed. As soon as you begin your humanitarian operations you should begin preparing your recovery plan. This is the road map for transition out of the humanitarian project back to normal operations. You must consider the sustainability of your operations and the impact on your budget.
Summary: Be Realistic
The desire to help others in need is natural and admirable. Governments and institutions of higher education can greatly assist in caring for victims of humanitarian crises. Before embarking on this road the practical considerations should be evaluated. It will always cost more money, require more resources, take more time, and involve more unanticipated problems than you can imagine. Governments and higher education institutions should carefully consider the costs and complications before volunteering their assistance.