More intelligent aid
Special guest: Peter Walton, Director International, Australian Red Cross
Host: Antony Balmain, Australian Red Cross
Antony: Welcome back to How Aid Works. I’m Antony Balmain, your host for today’s program.
In today’s program, Red Cross International Program Director, Peter Walton, discusses how aid needs to be completely turned on its head. Are we seeing power to the people in action, with local first responders taking a more central role in international aid? And what role can drones and hi-tech satellite imagery play in international aid?
Peter, thanks for being here.
Antony: Now first of all, what is intelligent aid and why are we looking at changing the way the aid system operates?
Peter: Well Red Cross, Australia Red Cross, has this concept called more intelligent aid, and what we’re seeking to do is something which sounds obvious but hasn’t really been done in any location, which is take a number of the learnings from a whole range of things that are done within the humanitarian sector but often in isolation. And, we’re putting, I guess, an idea around how might the whole system in a single location, like a country, be fundamentally different if we had all of those activities in place concurrently working in a mutually reinforcing way. So to give you an example, we often lament the fact that, time and time again when we have major natural disasters, sometimes we go through some areas where we’ve applied some lessons from the past, but frequently we make the same mistakes over and over again. So we’re thinking, through more intelligent aid, how to reduce risk, how do we actually put more attention on preventing and mitigating disaster before it strikes, how do we actually have the right legal environment, the right use of technology, the right use of local actors, you know, a whole range of things which will work together, which we would argue would give you a much smarter system, and ultimately save lives and save money.
Antony: What does that mean in practice though? What opportunities are there to make aid more efficient?
Peter: There are a number, and more intelligent aid is something where we’re – we’re going into this saying we don’t have all of the answers, we’re going to bring the experience of the Red Cross and the Red Cross movement to bear. But we really want to look at how we can mobilise entrepreneurs, different forms of industry, to actually work with us on a co-design to, sort of, I guess, re-design the architecture of a – of a system that isn’t really fit for purpose. So in practice, this could mean, having the right legislation in place, and let me give you a couple of examples there. When we saw earthquakes in Nepal, we go through the same pattern where people want to flock to give support immediately, but then the face barriers. , there isn’t legislation in place to fast track custom clearance, there isn’t, legislation in place in terms of landing rights at – at an airport in a landlocked country. Similarly, in Vanuatu.
Antony: So in Nepal, what does that mean after the massive earthquake, were we seeing big hold ups with aid getting into the country?
Peter: Yep, and that’s reflected in the media. It goes from huge outpouring of grief and empathy, through to why is aid not getting through fast enough. Well aid is often blocked at – at an airport waiting for clearance at customs, sometimes that custom clearance costs a huge amount of money, in other cases there’s unsolicited goods, , which are blocking up an airport. In many disasters recently, the clearing unwanted donations of unnecessary goods costs millions for the country which is still trying to recover their economy and recover from natural disaster.
Antony: What sort of goods are we talking about? I mean, people have the best intentions; surely they’re sending things which are useful.
Peter: No not always, I mean there’s some quite amusing stories of a shipment of bras going to Samoa costing I think it was about a million and a half to dispose of. Many of these unneeded items end up in landfill. So going back to your question, though, I think, the legislative environment is really important, but also imagine a world where domestic legislation is also better at preparing countries to prepare for and respond to and recover from disasters. In – in Vanuatu, there’s examples where some people are still struggling to rebuild their homes because of an inability to prove land ownership for land that they’ve lived on for generations, so housing land tenure property. So that’s one component, you know, if we could get that right, you know, the international assistance that’s often offered would be fundamentally different. , another example would be the use of technology. You know, we have so much data in the world now, but it’s not always being linked to making better decisions for humanitarian outcomes. , we have really good meteorological information, and that isn’t always linked to making the right decisions for early action. So we’re thinking, well how do we change that, how do we actually have, an – an ability to fund things which are responding to the scientific information that we have around, you know, specifically, climatic events like, whether that’s cyclones or even the slow-onset things like an El Nino crisis. We all saw this coming, but we didn’t always link it through to better preparation reducing risk.
Antony: So it could be a season that warns of more floods or more droughts, and we could prepare for that earlier.
Peter: Start preparing communities early and there’s a whole range of things you can do in terms of taking early action that reduce risk and – and save lives. technology is fundamentally important and really should be much better embraced. And, look, there are examples of it all around the humanitarian system, but our argument through more intelligent aid is they’re often done in isolation not part of a – a cohesive collective whole. We’re not universally using, satellite imagery to look at change detection in the first 24 hours after a disaster.
Antony: And in that immediate aftermath, of course it’s very difficult getting to places, and I understand that drones and unaccompanied aerial vehicles could be useful as well.
Peter: We’re looking at research to explore how drones can actually be better used in – in that immediate 24 to 48 hour period. When we think about some of the cyclones that hit the Pacific region in recent years, you know, often the cloud cover and, sort of, the remnants of major cycles, I mean it’s impossible to actually have a – a flyover of remote islands or even some of the main islands, straight away because planes can’t fly flow enough. You know, drones give us the possibility of doing rapid change detection, gathering information, linking that up to, you know, satellite imagery that we use in advance, and – and – and then knowing where we should get aid, where we should target aid, where we should actually prioritise, you know, getting more and more of the resources available. So that’s another example where I – I guess we’re not always joining up all the pieces, we have good examples of what works but they’re not working in a cohesive way. And when you factor in other components such as the role of local actors, you know, I think back to, Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, and it was a, , a huge event, it affected 60% of the gross domestic product of the country. It’s a country of 250-260,000 people, 130 international organisations with good intentions rushed in, but they bypassed the local institutions, the local businesses, the local nongovernmental organisations. These are the organisations and the groups that are the first responders, I mean, so how – how might they be better supported to be able to be the first responders? How might they be better supported to be engaged before a disaster so that we are engaging local private sector, we are stimulating the economy, we are doing – not bypassing, but complementing, you know, not substituting but supplementing the role of local, and that’s what we’re seeking to do with in this area also.
Antony: Well, I mean, there has been a growing international focus on making aid more local. Is this change overdue?
Peter: I think it’s well overdue. , I think if you think about a disaster that hits a country like Australia where, you know, we have lots – lots of natural disasters, floods and bushfires, it’s very rare for there to be a major event where we would require international assistance. Largely, we have the capability to – to deal with it ourselves. I mean, there are a few exceptions to that, of course. But I think, when it comes to developing countries, you know, we’re often stuck in this pattern where it’s more around, the international rushing in rather than build – supporting the local capacity to be more resilient and able to better withstand, prepare for and recover from the disasters. At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, you know, I think a lot of people – and Red Cross, Australia Red Cross certainly, feels the same, we – we don’t think that the current humanitarian system is really fit for purpose. When you fast forward to what the world has committed to in – on the 2030 agenda, many of those sustainable development goals are ambitious, they’re a real agenda for humanity, but we’re a long way away from being prepared to meet a lot of those areas, and in the humanitarian space I think that’s absolutely the case. We’re seeing, as everybody sees through the media, increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, prolonged, protracted conflicts that are lasting, you know, years, decades, now we’re preparing for a world that by 2030 that’ll be one degree warmer with a billion more people confronting issues of inequality, issues of climate change. The current system is not geared up to respond to what we’re anticipating. So I would argue that there needs to be substantive, systemic change to make aid more local and actually try to start changing the way that we approach the humanitarian needs of the planet and put humanity first again.
Antony: I mean, how – how do we make aid more local? I mean, because first responders are the ones that do the bulk of the work when there are disasters anyway?
Peter: Absolutely. And, again, you think back to earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, international assistance comes but it, the first responders are always local communities. So – put shifting – shifting investment into, preparing communities to help them reduce risk, to make them much more resilient is the first step. And, look, one of the interesting aspects of the current system is only one dollar in every eight that is spent on official aid is actually going into prevention rather than response. Yet we know for every dollar that we spend, we actually save a considerable amount of money, but more important we save lives. So we’re trying to see a shift in investment patterns also that, seeks to prioritise building the resilience and reducing the impact of – of disasters and conflicts and so forth. But we need to see much more. You know, when the World Humanitarian Summit, occurred last year, there was a call for a reform, and there was some really significant developments which, in my mind, , signalled the intent for quite a paradigm shift. And it’s incumbent on the humanitarian community and beyond to take that further. Some of the commitments made were a concept called the “Grand Bargain” where donors said that they would operate in much more flexible ways with earmarked multi-year funding, the flipside of that equation was humanitarian actors need to get their houses in order, we need to look at how we reduce inefficiencies, pull down some of the barriers, and also through a concept through the Grand Charter, promote localisation, which is really trying to invest in supporting local organisations, local government, local private sector, local actors, to build their resilience. And at – at the moment, you know, depending on your estimates, you know, some people would say that only 2% of official aid is actually local. Yet we have targets by 2020 for some of the major donors in the world to increase that to 25%. That in itself signals quite a changed model, changes in the way that international organisations operate, changes in the way – and the institutional capacity of local organisations, and we’re very, very support of that, we see that as part of the longer term solution and something that, I guess, more intelligent aid our concept feeds into, as well.
Antony: Do you think, it’s a fair bargain?
Peter: I think it’s a fair bargain and I think it’s long overdue. We have a system which, doesn’t always put best humanitarian outcomes first and as the target. And – and by that I mean we have a system that for decades and decades has been one which is characterised by, international organisations effectively being a donor to recipient local organisations, and in some respects, dictating the agenda. We also have, , major donors in governments that, , basically prolong a system which, , promotes isolated impact rather than collective impact. And by that I mean a donor will sit back and assess, well why is Organisation A able to make a bigger contribution than Organisation B, when actually we would like to see a discussion around, what is it we want to collectively achieve, who is best placed, and how can the various components of what organisations do be much more mutually reinforcing and operate together. It’s much more resource savvy, and also we would argue it puts humanity and humanitarian outcomes first.
Antony: What – what steps can be taken to support local actors, , to, – and local people, to be better prepared for disasters and – and, you know, and support their own communities and local responders?
Peter: Well there’s a whole range of things that we can do and, look, we would do them through local organisations, and – and – and Red Cross, of course, in 190 countries around the world, , is local, there – there’s a local Red Cross operating across the territory, branch structures in, you know, almost every country in the world. Red Cross and other local organisations, local government, local private sector, there needs to be investment in helping them build up the institutional capacity a- a- and also promote the role that they can play whenever a disaster strikes or whenever humanitarian action is needed. So that’s something that, we certainly do at Australian Red Cross, how does everything that we do seek to build up the local. , there’s a range of other things that we do too and, again, I mentioned before the example in Vanuatu where local businesses felt bypassed. We have an initiative underway called local supplier engagement, which is really seeking in advance of any disaster, working with Chambers of Commerce, local businesses, to actually establish, , agreements around the type of roles that they can play, whether that’s supplying goods, supplying services, logistics, but absolutely trying to put the local and stimulating the local economy at – at the forefront.
Antony: And why is it important to connect business in the aid sector?
Peter: Well businesses are part of the community too. You know, when a country suffers a massive impact on their GDP, it – it – you know, people often think about the recovery of a disaster being the immediate, response, it isn’t. If we think back to, the – the typhoon that hit Philippines in 2013, recovering from a disaster of that magnitude – and that was – that was the largest typhoon ever to make landfall at the time, and the – the – the cyclones in the Pacific, similarly the biggest climatic events to hit those countries, it’s not a fast recovery. And part of the recovery is also about getting back to normality, getting back to, a situation where an economy functions, getting back to a situation where people can work, getting back to a situation where children can go to school. All of this is compromised, , post-disaster. You know, schools could be destroyed, buildings, can be destroyed, businesses can be really stalled or delayed or go bankrupt. there’s a really important role that, the local economy has to play, and also it’s – you know, that’s the right thing to do, want to get communities back, and – but the role of the local and having them able to meet a lot of their needs is absolutely what the World Humanitarian Summit was about. It had a, a phrase that was coined which was, you know, humanitarian assistance should be as local as possible, as international as necessarily. International community will always stand ready to assist, but how does it assist in a way, which best serves that local community and also puts the decision making and the ownership, around that response, and the preparation for any disaster, really in the hands of the local? And I think that’s what we’re seeking to do, really try to make it a fundamental shift there.
Antony: In terms of nuts and bolts, in Vanuatu after the cyclone, are we talking about, ensuring that businesses are part of the recover that they provide the – literally the nuts and the nails, the – the hammers, the tarpaulins, rather than all of those goods flocking in from overseas, particularly if those goods are in the country in the first place?
Peter: Absolutely. I think if the goods are there in the first place, fantastic, they should be used. Similarly, if there are goods and services within the broader region, which are closer, they – they should be used. But it’s not just about goods, it is about services, it’s the logistics, the transportation, a whole range of things like that are critically important. And it even goes, I guess, beyond that because local organisations are, you know, not only are they part of the community, they have access, they have understanding. We saw 130 international organisations go to Vanuatu, and it’s great that there was such a – an outpouring of support, but many of those organisations hadn’t really operated in Vanuatu before. So they were definitely, in my mind, smarter ways in which we can, look at a – a better coordinated international response, but one that puts local at the – at the forefront.
Antony: And – and surely in terms of efficiency, , it just makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, , the local, as you say, the local businesses know their, culture, they know their economy, they know the way the communities function, and often outside organisations just, – it would be, a bit, steep learning curve for the.
Peter: That – that’s right, and – but the other aspect to it, though, is that a lot of support comes in and in many cases that’s absolutely appropriate, but how do you make best use of the resources that are coming in in a coordinated way, and how do we make the move from isolated impact or isolated contribution to a much more mutually reinforcing, coordinated, approach to a common agenda led – led by local authorities, local organisations. We’d like to see improvement there. I mean that – that old adage that ‘how do you make the whole greater than the sum of its parts’ is exactly what our more intelligent aid concept is about. The innovation in it isn’t the – the various components in many respects, although there’s some innovation there, the innovation is how – how do we actually do this together where we actually think along the continuum of preparing communities to be resilient through to relief, response, longer term recovery, how do we do that in smarter ways which really puts best humanitarian outcome, saving lives and saving money ultimately?
Antony: Now, you’ve worked in many countries around the world including Vietnam and – and others in the region. From your experiences, do you think it makes sense to do things differently?
Peter: Well I – I’d go back to the earlier point. I think if we don’t make change now, there’s going to be a fundamental problem with our ability to meet what we’re anticipating, changes to the world. And you’re – and we’re not prepared for that. You know, I – I spoke about change to population; change to climate change, there’s a whole range of things which you can consider that we’re just not really on top of. You know, there could be an emergence of a new pandemic, and we saw the fear factor when Ebola struck West Africa, you know, how – how are we prepared for pandemics, especially new pandemics that we haven’t encountered before. What does that mean in terms of antibiotic resistance, you know, and, , how – how prepared are we for that? What are we really doing in terms of the rapid rise of urbanisation when a lot the work that we do historically hasn’t always been geared around mega cities? So there’s a whole range of challenges, and the current system, despite huge amount of progress, and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the system hasn’t – the humanitarian system hasn’t done a range of amazing things, but it has to evolve. There’s a range of new actors, there’s a range of new technology, there’s a – a growing role of the private sector and insurance companies, banking industries and so forth. We have to take stock and say, well how do we do this in a smarter way knowing everything we know about, what we’re anticipating in the next two, three, five, ten years?
Antony: Well here you are, the Director of International Programmes at Australian Red Cross, but, was there one experience, many years passed when you were working in the field, you were working overseas and you were there, thinking, well surely we can do better than this?
Peter: Look, we should celebrate what is done, we do save a lot of lives, we – and I think that’s critically important, but I would say not a day goes by where I don’t think how we do this better. And I think that’s why we’re pushing this more intelligent aid concept. How – how do we draw on all of the things that we know are working? How do we test them? How do we open up our minds to different players, different organisations, to come in and help us deal with problems, which are increasingly conflated, you know. If – if an economy stalls, it’s bad for business, you know, so how do we get insurance companies, how do we get banking industry, how do we get technology companies, how do we get legal companies, how do we get them all part of the solution? So, in answer to your question, every day, every day I think, we have to be able to do this in smarter ways. Resources are limited and the needs are growing, so let’s get smart.
Antony: Well there are some that say that the aid sector is one of the biggest industries in the world and that’s selfperpetuating. I mean, do you really think we need a – a complete paradigm shift of – just a massive change in the way we do aid?
Peter: Yes, I do. I think, we build on the strengths and the lessons of the past, but there needs to be a fundamental shift, especially around the power dynamics, putting people, local people, back in charge of their own destiny and local organisations, in the driving seat for how they prepare for and respond to humanitarian consequences, and – and broader development. I think we do need a paradigm shift for all, all of the major changes that we’re seeing, but also, I guess, the sustainability of – of the current model. I think we have to see change in business models with international organisations; we have to see a change in mindset around improved collaboration, not just cooperation and coordination but genuine collaboration which puts humanity first.
Antony: Well, Peter, well thanks very much for taking the time to share your views on how, the world could do international aid better.
Peter: Thanks for having me.
Kick-start your humanitarian career.
Join the Crisis Response Crew and see the impact your donations make.