Emergency on the Subcontinent

For most humanitarian relief organizations, as well as the United Nations, the Indian Ocean tsunami was a pivotal experience that led to internal review of policies and procedures.  In a review of the literature produced on this topic, the principal factor cited was the need for mechanisms to improve both coordination and coherence amongst actors on the ground and more consolidated and predictable funding. In response, several mechanisms have been put in place over the intervening years, including humanitarian funding systems – the Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) and Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) – and, in 2005, the United Nations Cluster System with lead agencies covering needs in identified sectors, such as water sanitation and hygiene, health and shelter.

Rapid mobilization of funds for immediate crisis response 

Immediate funding that can be mobilized for the initiation of staffing, travel, procurement, and distribution of goods and materials is equally important and linked to the need for rapid mobilization of appropriate staff in an emergency. Before the tsunami response, Handicap International had enough internal funding to initiate a preliminary assessment and provide a limited response. However, activities were, for the most important part, delayed while the organization sought external funding from donors and the public. This further whittled away at the three-week target window critical for life-saving intervention.

Because of its experience in the tsunami, Handicap International now has in place an internal funding mechanism worth between US$250,000 to US$270,000 each year, for immediate and early emergency response. “We had more of a long-term development mind set then and the internal justification process took some time,” Calvot said of Handicap International’s establishment of an internal funding mechanism.

Having the organizational capacity to respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is critical in terms of saving lives. Equally important is knowing how to respond most effectively. A large part of the relevant and swift intervention following a disaster lies in the capacity to forecast future needs and to be able to anticipate the corresponding response without knowing exactly the type and extent of the needs.

The role of new or newer organizations and the power of individual giving are also potentially important factors in humanitarian response.  It is critical that their efforts be closely coordinated with the needs of the target population and the actions and efforts of the larger humanitarian response community.  Newer institutional actors should participate in the U.N. Cluster System to ensure their actions complement those of other organizations and are consistent with the goals and priorities of host country governments.

Although individuals are sometimes motivated to make in-kind donations of items, such as hygiene kits, blankets and food items, their goodwill is best directed toward cash contributions to organizations that have a presence in-country. By providing cash to support the activities of institutional actors, individuals can greatly multiply the impact of their giving by effectively combining it with other funding sources. Furthermore, organizations are more likely to purchase identified, appropriate and needed items, have the capacity to make larger scale and therefore less expensive procurement decisions and have the logistical capacity to ensure the timely shipping and delivery of needed items directly to beneficiary communities in the disaster zone.

Programming: Community-based care and provision of basic needs

Handicap International’s response to the injured victims of the tsunami in Aceh was initially focused on hospital-based care and the prevention of secondary disabilities. The organization did not have community focal persons or mechanisms identified that could provide a continuum of care and services for the injured and disabled after hospital discharge. Eventually, as the patient load in hospitals decreased, Handicap International began follow-up care in the communities. 

“After the tsunami, there weren't that many injured people,” Calvot said. “Many had died and, yes, some were injured, but not as many as in Haiti, for example. In Indonesia, post-tsunami, the true medical emergency was a matter of three to four weeks,” he added. Handicap International’s intervention was primarily focused on assisting people with disabilities affected directly or indirectly by disaster. Therefore, people with chronic disease and the elderly were helped, but were considered less of a priority.