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Five ideas for more effective aid

From stronger disaster laws to better use of climate forecasts and mobile technology, here are five game-changing ways to reshape aid.

Tuesday May 24, 2016

Philippines Typhoon Koppu
Better solutions are needed to help the millions affected by disasters each year. Photo: IFRC

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May.

This week in Istanbul, the world's leading humanitarian agencies, donors and governments are hammering out solutions  for a world in crisis.  

Over the last two decades, disasters affected some 218 million people each year. We're seeing more severe cyclones, droughts, cold waves and floods. Humanitarian workers and hospitals are regularly bombed or shot at, in flagrant disregard for the laws of war.  

Meanwhile, aid agencies are under more pressure to be efficient and lean to demonstrate value for their donors' money.  

It's time to reshape aid. It needs to be much less about flying in international relief teams and a lot more about managing crises locally.   

It's time for game-changing approaches with a strong focus on our Asia-Pacific region and the climate-related crises that threaten our neighbours. Here are some of the ideas now taking shape in Australia's aid program.  

Let's invest more in preparing for disasters, so we can spend less on responding to them.
Red Cross studies show that every dollar spent on reducing risks, saves at least $18 in the cost of disaster response. Yet only $1.50 of every $10 'disaster dollars' worldwide is spent on risk reduction. This is as true in Australia as it is in the rest of the world.  

It's time to invest in practical ways to protect lives, homes and families: holding coordinated earthquake drills and evacuation plans in cities built near fault lines; building cyclone-resistant homes on remote Pacific Islands; helping all families, everywhere, to have an emergency plan to protect what cannot be replaced. Disaster risk reduction - the process of identifying hazards and risks, and taking practical steps to mitigate them - must be a pillar of every aid program. It costs less, saves lives and makes sense.  

We have excellent climate forecasting systems; they can be used to avert suffering.
We knew, well before Papua New Guinea communities ran out of water or Ethiopia plunged in to a food crisis, that the El Niño climate cycle would lead to drought. But the humanitarian system is largely funded by appeals: a crisis arises, enough people suffer to garner global sympathy, and then funds are sought to help.  

We must try a different way. Forecast-based financing is a model where a pool of funds is made available as soon as a crisis can be reliably predicted. This money would help communities in the affected area to take practical steps to prepare: clearing drains of debris in anticipation of a flood; planting drought-resistant seeds before a dry spell arrives; or preparing evacuation centres as a cyclone gains speed.  

A recent trial of forecast-based financing in Bangladesh shows highly promising results: every dollar spent to help families prepare for a forecasted flood would save three dollars in losses when the floods came. This year, we'll be adapting the model for the Pacific.  

We must improve the laws that govern disaster response.
When Nepal was devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake last year, international aid poured in, though much was stopped at the border. Nepal's legal and regulatory framework for disaster management had not been updated in 34 years, causing vital hold ups for relief supplies and international medical teams at customs. The cost of the relief operation skyrocketed. Issues of land tenure and land rights continue to delay the rebuilding process.  

Nepal is by no means alone: 75 per cent of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, do not have comprehensive rules for managing international aid in disasters.   Disaster laws make aid more effective. They give governments a mandate to prepare for disasters and coordinate life-saving humanitarian aid. Improving these laws will speed up aid delivery, avoid duplication and unnecessary costs.

Local businesses can provide for their own communities in a disaster.
It's time for aid agencies and the private sector to work together to improve, if not overhaul,  supply and distribution chains. We need agreements with local suppliers, so that appropriate relief goods are available before disasters strike.  Local warehouses must be ready to house the goods and we need air, sea and land transport services to distribute them. This means that people get useful relief supplies more quickly, and boosts local economies that take a battering in disasters.  

More people have access to mobile phones than toilets. Let's work with that.
The rapid uptake of mobile technologies can greatly change the way aid works. We can track the spread of a virus through surveys on a mobile phone. A PIN-secured SMS service could be the quickest and easiest way to get emergency cash to families who have lost their homes in a disaster. An unmanned aircraft flying over a cyclone-damaged island could give us a quick and accurate picture of need, without waiting for an assessment team. Instead of complaining that there are more phones than toilets, let's use those phones to make life better for their owners.  

The humanitarian system is not always set up to fund ideas like these. That's why the World Humanitarian Summit proposes a 'grand bargain': an agreement where donor governments agree to multi-year funding with space for innovation, while humanitarian agencies commit to greater transparency and cost-effectiveness.  

This is not only a time to change the aid system, but also to stand up for the values and principles behind it. We should never accept poverty and deprivation. We should never stop trying to prevent and alleviate human suffering. And we should never let borders, conflicts and politics get in the way.    

Peter Walton is Director of International Programs at Australian Red Cross.

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Red Cross at the World Humanitarian Summit