Obstacles Encountered and Overcome

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Obstacles Encountered and Overcome

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What were problems you discovered when initially providing aid to areas affected by disasters?
  • How did you counter this if you could?
    • If not what did you lack that stopped you from addressing problems unforeseen.
Coordination, Info and Needs - System Level Issues

I think we can tackle this question from a tremendous number of perspectives - not least of which is by the type of disaster.Response to a fire is obviously quite different than that to a drought. Problems associated with pedictable, natural disasters - like hurricanes - may be different from that of unpredicatble, man-made ones like war.

However, a near universal set of challenges I continue to see especially in the Response phase (or those actions focused on the immediate needs of the affected communities) tend to deal with coordination, information sharing and, ultimately, appropriately matching available resources to needs. These occur at the community or field level all the way up to (and especially) at the systems level. To get things rolling I'll start at the system level.

At the highest level, the United Nations and or the state military (e.g. United States militiary) often serve as coordinating agencies for the tens if not hundreds of NGOs, nonprofits, contractors, etc that may be responding in the immediate aftermath of, say, a large earthquake. However, this coordination is rarely compulsory and is usually ineffiecient due to so many sources and layers that information comes from and must pass through. Furthermore, you have agencies varying levels of expertise and experience, with different cultures and missions, incompatible protocols or even IT systems.

As a result, broad-level information may be collected and acted upon but more granular community needs often do not get shared in a timely manner - invariably this leads to a lack of coordination in aid delivery, actions (or lack of) based on incorrect or outdated information, and ultimately not being to get the right stuff to the right people at the right time. This we get duplicate effort - for example, too much food being all sent to one location - or overlooking a need by assuming someone else is covering it.

The solution? Very often- especially in this immediate Response phase - is to simply "get it done." In other words, agencies will press on independent of coordination and pursue their own leads, do their own needs assessments, and deliver their own aid. The downside, of course, is that while short-term aid may get delivered, those very actions perpetuate the ongoing problems of coordination, communication and resource matching.

True systems-level solutions are to be found in the other phases of disaster response and development - Recovery, Mitigation and Preparedness - which focus more acutely on building community resiliency. These solutions - and there are many and they are dynamic and one size rarely fits all - involve local education and empowerment, local risk assessment, local resource capacity building and long-term community engagement.

Before drilling down into specific examples, I am curious if anyone else has had similar high level experiences or - perhaps even better - been witness to relatively efficient and coordinated multi-agency responses to humanitarian crises?

Jason, I completely agree

Jason, I completely agree that once organizations touch down into a disaster area, many must go their own way of delivering aid because attempting to communicate/coordinate can be so difficult nothing would get done quick enough or in the most effective way.

Further, another problem when a disaster strikes are long term efforts to rebuild to community and make it sustainable, this is usually the government agencies job of fixing infrastructure as well as providing aid to people to rebuild homes, businesses etc. But this can be long journey making the process difficult and hurting people in the long run. Recently when thinking of Puerto Rico's populations who needed to file insurance claims/ or work with FEMA. Having an inspection took too long to complete and many have not heard back. People's lives have had to be put on hold. A good example would be Puerto Ricos poor power grid infrastructure. Because of this before the disaster has led a majority of the island being without power for months. 

As you had mentioned, specific populations "being overlooked" is continuous problem, especially those who are in rural areas of the country. We mention later that community engagement may help in delivering aid that is needed by the locals, and would help decrease the confusion and chaos there is in times like this. 


"Before" wasn't great

You make a good point, Shyla, in that many of the communities hardest hit by disasters are precisely those that were most at risk, most vulnerable, and least resilient. In other words - they were quite fragile before the disaster struck and thus responding and recovering to their previous state isn't exactly a best practice. As you mentioned, the electricity grid in Puerto Rico was very creaky to begin with before Hurricane Maria landed due to lack of institutional investment related to their debt crises. So even repairing the grid back to it's pre-Maria status does nothing to increase its resiliency nor markedly benefit most of the rural citizens that have been living through brown- and black-outs  for nearly a decade.

In the specific case of Puerto Rico and energy there has been a lot of movement both at the community level at the state level (via the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority or PREPA) to move towards renewables. In particualar, TESLA and others have been looking at microgrids and I believe the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute has suggested a decentralized, household level appraoch for the mountainous rural regions. The latter would certainly be an example of local empowerment although it would still require state level funding given the installation costs. (This December article sums this up).

Going from Relief to Recovery (the rebuilding phase of disaster response) is long and difficult and requires not only a massive amount of collaboration (even for relatively small communities) but also a agility and flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. And a poltiical will - which often the hardest to find.

Large, complex and protracted emergencies

War, ethnic cleansing and genocide, exacerbated by epidemics, natural disasters, and other socio-political and environmental factors, have results in some of the worst humanitarian crises of recent decades.

Yeminis are barely surviving under a relentless armed conflict, daily aerial bombings, and a worsening famine and health epidemic caused by external blockades from regional belligerents. The Syrian and Iraqi wars continue unabated, resulted in mass displacements internally and across international borders, and triggering new conflicts by non-state violent extremism. The Rohingya refugee crisis was a 'text-book' ethnic cleansing, perpetrated by a government that has never recognized the rights to citizenship of this ethnic and religious minority group since the country's independence. After decades of civil conflict, the final peace agreement in Sudan gave birth to the world's newest nation of South Sudan. Ethnic warfare between two dominant S Sudanese tribes shortly followed, intensified by drought and famine, a cholera outbreak, an ill-equipped and overwhelmed health system, official corruption and the declining revenue from shared oil wealth.

In these large, complex and protracted humanitarian contexts, the obstacles to an effective, life-saving response are innumerable, and the possible interventions are often considered stop-gap measures and reactive. Lets take a quick look at three obstacles at the outset of a response: Security, Access and Coordination.

Personnel safety and security permissibility are paramount for effective delivery of aid to a conflict affected region. Typically, relief workers rely on a security coordination system, and regular and daily briefings with the UN and host government entities, to determine the appropriate the security level and posture - i.e., general acceptance, armed protection or force deterrence - before launching the interventions such as a rapid assessment, a food distribution, or a vaccination campaign. Larger NGOs also have security personnel on duty to ensure an even more reliable and robust security posture.

Access to affected displace populations is a perennial challenge - "where there are no roads." In a context of mass displacement of refugees or IPDs to inhospitable land areas and/or one that overwhelms local capacity and resources, UN-civil-military cooperation is one effective vehicle of aid delivery of food, water, shelters and medicines, and aid workers, often by military trucks or air-lift capacity during the initial 'essential life-saving' phase of the response.

Coordination is an accepted best practice and not always a fail-safe principle. In recent responses of complex emergencies of the past two decades, however, the UN has played a key leading role of coordination across all sectors, in partnership with NGOs/IOs. The UN is typically also the main interlocutor in sensitive negotiations with host governments, militaries, and sometimes belligerent forces, to ensure access and security, and strict adherence to the "do no harm" principle. The majority of NGOs/IOs do take seriously the Sphere Standards (http://www.spherehandbook.org/), of which coordination and collaboration is one of six core standards.

The Role of Small Agencies

Huy also raises an important point - there are some humanitarian emergencies that are so complex and potentailly dangerous that a small, inexperienced agency - regardless of their enthusiasm - should sit out or, better, find ways to support the larger, experienced NGOs. Certainly active war zones or public health hot spots require a level of expertise and resources that ony those expert groups should have field operations. Number 6 of the Sphere Standards Huy mentioned addresses that specifically: "Humanitarian agencies have an obligation...to employ aid workers with the appropriate knowledge, skills, behaviour and attitudes to deliver an effective humanitarian response...[and] enable aid workers to perform satisfactorily through effective management and support for their emotional and physical well-being."

Smaller agencies can coordinate and support the larger ones with supplies or cash or information. Ideally, they will understand their own limitations. Over-reaching especially in environments Huy discussed not only put the agencies' personnel in harm's way but also can lead to a diversion of resources (someone now has to help your staff) and thus exacerbate the cirumstances for the impacted communities.

Huy - in your experience - have you witnessed smaller agencies doing more harm than good by being over-eager or perhaps unrealistic about their own capacities to respond?

A somewhat different but related scenario happens routinely in material donations following a disaster. It's quite common to see, for example, pallets and pallets of winter jackets and sweaters clogging the ports in tropical Haiti after the earthquake. Or teams of independent medical volunteers stuck at customs with no local coordinating organization. We call this the second disaster or the disaster within the disaster and it leads to clogged supply chains (e.g. planes can't land), needless expenses (e.g. shipping bottled water), diversion of scarce human resources (e.g. aid workers sorting used clothing), or even genuine illness (e.g. donated breast milk that's turned). We try to prevent this through early communication (send cash!), use of standardized needs lists or - when possible - community-specific requests.

Doing more harm than good

Indeed the scenarios Jason mentioned above are not uncommon. 

From my experience, Poor adherence to -- and sometimes even willful negligence of -- the Do No Harm principle is present in many man-made and natural disaster contexts, regardless of the expertise, size or capacity of an NGO, GO, UN or donor agency.  A recent example is the WHO's botched response to the Ebola epidemic relative to early warning and surge capacity - read  http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/joint-statement-ebola/en/  Years ago, the Gov't of Bangladesh, WB, Unicef and NGO partners, implemented a rural clean water campaign through tube wells, thousands of which were only later tested and found to be contaminated by Arsenic.  https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/04/06/nepotism-and-neglect/failing-response-arsenic-drinking-water-bangladeshs-rural

Large NGOs and contractors have also caused serious harm through misconduct, fraud and waste over the years, in some cases resulting in donors' investigation, suspension and cancellation of contracts (e.g., see the USAID cases against AED and IRD in Afghanistan and Iraq). 

As Jason noted, "Smaller" organizations often lack the capacity and resources to effectively and efficiently deliver and implement their objectives, and some ended badly or worse.  Yet, some others do an effective job given their focused sectoral expertise, typically under a sub-contract/sub-grant arrangement through, or in collaboration with, larger agencies.  Where things usually go terribly wrong are the handful of maverick NGOs that willfully go it alone, do not have operational presence in-country, yet deployed boots on the ground to chase after contracts, with minimal local knowledge or no reliable contacts, without a security and risk management plan, and questionable expertise at best.  I have directly witnessed the demise of a few of these ill-prepared 'actors', which in some cases resulted in personnel kidnapped, stolen cash and equipment, and destroyed aid materiel.

Fortunately, moving forward I think we are starting to see greater efforts among all actors and stakeholders put towards genuine reforms and greater accountability.





What skills do NGO leaders need to have in management?

Thank you for starting this thread, Jason. It brings to mind for me a question that I have been posing in my role here at Hamline University: are there different skills that NGO leaders (executives and senior managers) need to have that are different from their counterparts in domestically operating nonprofits? For those of you that have maybe done both in your career, what do you see as the main differences? And how do we best prepare future and current NGO leaders for the administrative and management challenges ahead?

leadership skills

Thanks, Jeannie for raising a good question.  There may be some slight differentiation that management experts would be able to delineate; but in my experience, I do not see a marked difference in the overall requisite skills for effective management, whether in an NGO, PVO or US-based non-profit setting.  I mention here below some leadership skills, which I continue to learn and practice in my NGO work. 

  • External Orientation - this is critical whether you are working in an international or domestic setting; for example, https://www.eurasiagroup.net/issues/top-risks-2018
  • Communicate a clear vision or a strategy, and plan for action.
  • Build a high performance team - the work we do requires a cohesive, motivated and result-oriented team.
  • Practice managerial courage - tactful, fair and direct feedback that addresses performance and resolves conflict among key personnel.
  • Deliver on results - we are accountable to the populations we serve and to our donors.
That's a very challenging

That's a very challenging question,  Jeannie, and I'm just as curious to hear your thoughts!

In thinking about this, I wonder if the distinction between domestic and international is ultimately no more than subject matter expertise (e.g. knowledge of particular protocols and customs, language, different rolodex, etc) and the real distinction in intrinsic leadership attributes is drawn on agency size and mission?

For example, a leader of a domestic NPO with a focus on, say, teacher training in schools in a particular parrish in New Orleans might ideally have the same skill set as a leader of a US-registered 501c3 NGO with a focus on teacher training in schools in Cap-Hatien, Haiti. Similar, a leader of a domestic  NPO that ships donated medical supplies to community clinics throughout the US to one doing the same to multiple countries.

From an organizational standpoint, I continue to see the biggest challenges as financial solvability and fundraising. The size of the pool of potential funds has increased yet at the same time consolidated (another variant of the increasing wealth disparity) as has the number of NPOs. Factor in near-endless political fundraising in the US and the competition for donor dollars seems to be growing. At the same time, institutional donors have their own objectives and outcome ideas - which can lead agencies to drift from their mission in an attempt to attract and accommodate funders. So NPO leaders - in addition to managing complex organizations - must be able to imagine multiple revenue streams, meet donor expectations and still remain true to the mission.

There seems to be a lot of discussion about NPOs increasingly modeling themelves on coporate practices - earned income; measurable/quantifiable outcomes; viewing donors as investors, etc culminating, perhaps in the belief that the difference between an NPO and corporation should ideally and solely concern profit re-investment.

That's an admittedly simplistic distillation but what are your thoughts on that? And relatedly, do you find former coporate executives make good NPO/NGO leaders? Does the opposite hold true (and why doesn't that seem to happen more often)?  (FYI - as I write this, I realize this may be more appropriate to move to the Open Discussion thread)

Leadership Questions

I agree, Jason, I suspect there are more similarities than differences in domestic vs international nonprofits. Fundraising and financial management are generally key challenges across the board. Since I don't work in the international sphere, I can only guess at what greater challenges might exist. Certainly, since 9/11 there are additional obstacles (potentially) to moving money overseas and sadly, in parts of the world, a growing suspicion of western influence. Changes in long-standing foreign policy, a la the Trump administration, are certain to bring new challenges. From a management perspective, I can also speculate about U.S. NGO's employing, training and retaining staff who work remotely is not the easiest, but is likely aided by newer technologies that have enhanced communications across great distances.

UN Cluster System

I would be interested to hear what experiences people have had in crisis situations with the United Nations Cluster Approach. This approach was implemented in 2005 to address the problems and challenges with coordination of relief efforts, some of which have been noted in this thread. Some analyses of the Cluster Approach have shown that it has been an effective tool in improving the coordination of humanitarian relief, though these analyses have also noted that incorporating the perspectives of national and local NGOs remains a problem with the clusters.

Princple and Practice

The Cluster approach, in principle, has been a step in the right direction. ALNAP (a humanitarian best practices research network) released an analysis a few years ago in which they concluded that the mechanisms of the Cluster System do indeed improve coordination and help with security but, as it is a vountary system, agencies could choose to participate or not and at vary levels, depending on what benefit they realized. Furthermore, the system is founded on trust - something that can be in short supply (compounded when we are dealing with funding). Frustratingly, the Cluster System approach requires following fairly codified policies and  procedures that can be quite burdonsome to small agencies at which point it becomes more cost-effective and pragamatic to simple step out of it.

In Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, the UN implemented it's Cluster System and it was actually quite dysfuntional. It seemed many agencies were spending more time trying to learn the System protocols than actually working on response plans. Furthermore - it being a top-down system - the local Hatian government and communities weren't always appropriately included. We participated initially but quckly found that, while it was relatively effective for information sharing, it was not improving coordination (at our admittedly small level) and thus hindering our delievery of resources to impacted communities. Slate magazine wrote a very critical article describing some of these difficulties. (In fairness, the 2010 event was incredibly complex and probably the biggest test at the time to the Cluster System. Furthermore, the subsequent cholera outbreak did not, among other things, lead to a lot of high opinions).

In the years since, has anyone had more positive experiences with the Cluster System?


Jason rightly points out that the UN Cluster system is taking right and positive steps towards improving coordination, minimizing overlaps and promoting complementarity across sectoral responses, particularly in Level 3 emergencies (L3).  L3 Haiti was a great test for the UN and all other actors, exposing some early major gaps and deficiencies in coordination, operations and logistics. 

The cluster approach to the Darfur crisis was also criticised by external observers and those in the field at the time.  Arguably, the Protection Cluster had an extremely difficult task, in the face of the Khartoum government's complicity in the genocide and active obstructions relative to humanitarian access and implementation.

The L3 Eboba epidemic that devastated the West Africa subregion required a system-wide response under the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) and respective health ministries in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.  MSF and other INGOs played a significantly role in the field ETUs, in coordination with UNMEER, along with other critical efforts from the CDC and US Military.  Community Engagement on Information, Education and Communication campaigns was absolutely essential.  Notwithstanding WHO's botched efforts in the beginning, the subsequently scaling up and coordinated response across the subregion can be attributed to stemming and finally reversing the course of the epidemic.

Appropriate Response

Thanks, Jason, for the helpful comment on the Cluster System. Reading this thread, along with the thread on emergency assistance as a human right, I'm wondering if we can perhaps widen the discussion on appropriate response beyond the organizations themselves to the wider public. Jason's point about the "second disaster" - that is the issue of inappropriate material donations, independent volunteers stuck at customs, etc. - is very familiar and speaks to how the wider public (mis)understands crisis situations. This (mis)understanding sees people in crisis in a particular way, with particular needs, etc. And, it is often shaped by assumptions about who refugees and displaced people are (i.e. passive, helpless, in need of external assistance). To what extent can thinking about humanitarian assistance as a human right challenge some of these assumptions? How else can the agency of people in crisis situations be highlighted both in discourse and in practice?  

Rohingya refugee crisis - "a disaster withing a disaster"

”It's going to be a disaster within a disaster; we're going to have to restart," said Graham Eastmond, who coordinates aid groups working on organising shelter in the camps. "The monsoons themselves are going to create a whole different landscape to what exists now."



My colleague Graham Eastmond is the shelter sector head for IOM, based in Cox's Bazar.  Over 100,000 refugees currently residing on unstable land are potentially affected.  There are no easy solutions, with time and resource constraints conspiring to exacerbate an already desperate situations for the refugees.   Will his dire 'early' warning translate into urgent actions before the onset of the cyclone and monsoon season starting in late May?  Will limited resources be sufficiently redirected to either relocate those shelters most at risk to floods and landslides, and/or stabilize the homes that face 'lesser' vulnerability?