Coordination after a disaster
Posted on January 25, 2010 at 3:10 pm
Coordination is a significant problem after each disaster. Although there have been attempts to improve coordination through initiatives such as the Cluster Approach lead by the UN, coordination remains a problem. While better information sharing systems, national laws and regulations, funding models, and pre-disaster coordination could help, there would still be significant coordination challenges faced after each disaster.
Other bloggers have already written on issues affecting coordination including Michael Kaizer in A Humourless Lot and Alanna Shaikh in her UN Dispatch post. Both were in response to criticisms made in an editorial in The Lancet. Here is my own explanation of why coordination is such a problem.
Overwhelming number and variety of organizations responding to a disaster
The shear number and different types of groups that respond to each disaster can be overwhelming. I used to describe the situation after the tsunami as the Wild West. According to an article in the New York Times there have been over 375 organizations that have already registered with the UN and an unknown number that haven’t. After any major disaster the people and organizations responding include:
- Neighbors, friends, family, and bystanders
- Tourists and individual volunteers that travel to the area to help
- Community based organizations like food pantries and women’s cooperatives
- Churches: local churches which often serve as immediate shelters after the disaster and help feed and clothe disaster victims and may also be used as first aid stations, and international churches sending teams of people over to help with the response
- Service organizations: locally based clubs and civil service organizations such as local Rotary or Lions Clubs, and international clubs sending teams over to help.
- Search and rescue teams: city and county first responders such as
the police and fire department, state-wide first responder teams,
international search and rescue teams.
- Government offices and agencies: city, county, and state government offices such as provincial disaster preparedness and response offices or national offices such as FEMA. In addition there are international governmental agencies like USAID, AUSaid, and DFID.
- Statewide, national, and international aid organizations such as the Red Cross, CARE, or OXFAM. Even organizations with the same name could be different organizations. For instance the American Red Cross is a different organization from the British Red Cross which is different from the Thai Red Cross. In Indonesia after the tsunami there were so many Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies involved in the relief efforts that the IFRC built a compound for them in an attempt to increase coordination and information sharing between them.
- National and International businesses like Coca Cola or Siam Cement, both responded after the tsunami
- Military units including the army, navy, or air force from the country where the disaster occurred as well as the army, navy, or air force from several other countries.
- United Nations organizations which might respond include the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UNICEF, or the World Food Program (WFP).
Each organization responding to the disaster will have their own priorities, protocols, information system, and chain of command. They will also vary in their capabilities, specialties, and ability to compromise. Coordinating the work of so many different entities would be difficult even under the best of circumstances. Immediately after a disaster is the worst of circumstances.
For a detailed explanation of the logistical problems and why they occur in disasters see both Logistics questions around the Haiti earthquake from A Humourless Lot… and Why Aid is Slow Getting in to Haiti by Wanderlust
Logistics problems impact coordination. Problems that follow every major disaster mean that although there is an overwhelming amount of need, there are limited resources with which to meet those needs. Goods may not be able to enter the country or if in country may get stuck at the ports. There will be shortages of fuel and reliable vehicles. Roads and bridges are damaged or destroyed preventing supplies and assistance from reaching remote areas.
With too few supplies for too great of need, difficult decisions have to be made. With limited medical supplies, what’s the best way to distribute them? With limited food and clean water, how much should each location get and how do you get it to them? With limited fuel how do you transport the most goods using the least amount of fuel and how much fuel does each organization get? With roads and bridges damaged or destroyed should resources be directed to fixing these if it means the resources won’t be available for delivering assistance to those areas located on usable roads?
Because of the limitations outlined above, some very tough decisions need to be made regarding which types of relief and which locations are most critical. Just when a strong and coordinated government is needed the most it is the least capable of responding. Many of the government’s staff, structures, and resources are destroyed in a disaster. A government that may have been struggling before the disaster suddenly must coordinate a multi-million dollar relief effort. They may not have the laws in place to allow quick decision making or rapid changes in how government offices function. They will have to move people into positions of power and responsibility they’re not used to, assimilate information from a multitude of sources, and coordinate closely with organizations from all over the world. All while trying to dig out of the disaster and mount their own response efforts. In Haiti, the devastation to the government is so significant that both the UN and US are taking a large role in the recovery efforts. There are many articles focusing on just this situation so I won’t address them in this blog.
On the ground realities
Does this make what is happening on the ground any less frustrating or devastating? – no
Could these problems have been predicted? – yes
Should more be done before disasters strike to ensure a better, more coordinated response? – yes
Will increasing the pressure on aid organizations right now to work faster or coordinate better speed up the relief efforts? – no
These are the realities on the ground today.
Posts and articles referenced:
The Lancet if Off-Base About Aid Agencies – UN Dispatch
Some Advice for Military Humanitarians – Small Wars Journal
Logistics questions around the Haiti earthquake from A Humourless Lot
Why Aid is Slow Getting in to Haiti by Wanderlust