Disaster Relief 2.0: While you looked…West

Ed note: The report Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies analyzes how the humanitarian community and the emerging volunteer and technical communities worked together in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and recommends ways to improve coordination between these two groups in future emergencies.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), together with the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, commissioned the report, which was researched and written by a team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

The Disaster Relief 2.0 Blog Series provides a public forum for people from both the humanitarian and volunteer and technical communities to discuss ideas in this report and the future of disaster relief.

You can follow conversations about the report on Twitter using the hashtag #DisasterTech and on the UN Foundation’s Facebook page. Readers can submit questions to the report’s authors through those channels; a transcript with answers to select questions will be published on UN Dispatch on April 11, 2011.

While you looked…West

By Gianluca Bruni


Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Benin, Haiti, Haiti.
Kyrgyzstan. Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti. Pakistan, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti. DRC, Haiti, Haiti, Haiti. Somalia, how can IT help. Haiti, Haiti, Pakistan, Haiti, Haiti, Philippines, Haiti.

If you are involved in any role in humanitarian response, be that IT, planning, management, logistic or anything else, your 2010 has been similar to the above. You probably heard the word Haiti thirty times more than any other country. You’ve planned for it, you fundraised, you executed, you supported, you monitored, you learned the lesson. And very likely, you are now busy ensuring that the lessons we all learned from Haiti really sink into your organization and the ‘next Haiti’ will be better, faster, more cost-effective, more inclusive. You will access more information, you will share it better – and therefore, you will better cooperate with partners and ultimately provide better assistance to the people in need.

Benin, somewhere in West Africa, Q3 2010. “Thousands of homes damaged in heavy rains and hundreds of cholera cases reported” (the Guardian), “It is the worst flooding to hit the country – one of the poorest in the world – since 1963. Areas previously thought not to be vulnerable to flooding have been devastated and villages wiped out” (BBC). Two thirds of the country under water. 700,000 people homeless – it’s as if the entire population of Amsterdam was suddenly homeless. But it was not Amsterdam. The question is: how can the ‘new IT tools’ provide assistance in such a situation in Benin, where donor attention and resources are scarce, and therefore their optimal utilization is even more important?

Today, more than a year after Haiti, while learning the lessons, we need to keep in mind that Haiti was unique. It revolutionized the importance, the needs and services that we can and should provide in emergencies. But we need to think and ask ourselves how often there will be ‘another Haiti’, and how learning from Haiti can benefit the Benins, the Kyrgyzstans, the Myanmars and, why not, the DRC and the Somalia.

There is another challenge ahead of us: in situations… like Haiti… there are massive IT resources poured into the country. The private sector, the UN, the Non-Government Community, schools, universities, … individuals. Everyone wants to help. In WFP we have a saying that ‘everything that the humanitarian community needs in terms of IT has already been invented’ – and if it hadn’t before, it has been invented during Haiti. Our challenge is integrating all such tools, ensuring we don’t duplicate efforts and re-invent the wheel, and, mostly, that our IT efforts are all integrated and complement each other. And ensure that they can be used effectively by large and small, but not less important, humanitarian organizations.

The next humanitarian emergency won’t be IN Haiti. It won’t be LIKE Haiti. The next emergency is today, while I type, in Cote d’Ivoire, where the lives of humanitarian workers (yes, the people who are there to help) are at risk.

Ah. I fell in the same trap. Aside from the first paragraph, the word Haiti appears 11 times, while Benin only 3, and Cote d’Ivoire only once… It’ll be hard.

P.S. The title of this blog post recalls an Oct 2001 article in the Economist, about the impact of media attention on Sept 11 and how it allowed a growing crises in Zimbabwe going unnoticed.

Gianluca Bruni is Chief of IT Emergency and Preparedness Branch for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Since joining WFP in 1991, Gianluca Bruni has responded to many of the world’s most severe humanitarian emergencies. From the Great Lakes crises in Rwanda in 1995, to the tsunami in Indonesia and the recent earthquake in Haiti, Gianluca and his response team have been at the forefront of IT Emergency Response operations.  As Chief of the IT Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch, with offices spread between Dubai, Dakar, Rome, Bangkok and Kampala, Gianluca spearheads initiatives to increase efficiency and effectiveness of IT response to humanitarian emergencies around the world, and is behind some of the most successful emergency IT public / private partnerships.