Issue 34 - Article 9

Timing matters: capacity-building during an emergency response

July 6, 2006
Silva Lauffer, RedR-IHE

When a disaster happens, a plethora of well-meaning individuals and organisations of all shapes and sizes rush to the stricken area. Resources are mobilised and staff deployed to the disaster zone. What we then find is that the provision and delivery of services and goods are often far from adequate for the needs encountered locally. Goodwill is not good enough. To ensure appropriateness, accountability, harmonisation and sustainability, policies, procedures and practices need to be streamlined, and ownership by the recipients of aid ensured. For this to happen, dialogue between the different stakeholders needs to be facilitated, information properly managed and best practices taught and understood.


Problems in the emergency response

Although there are many examples of exemplary emergency response conducted by a variety of stakeholders following the Pakistan earthquake, many mistakes could have been avoided. It is clear that there were immense capacity challenges involved in assisting homeless people in a mountainous region of roughly 28,000 square kilometres. Some of these challenges included:

  1. Inappropriate shelter.
  2. Lack of awareness of humanitarian principles and international standards.
  3. Lack of involvement of recipients in decision-making.

There was a lack of winterised tents, and people displaced by the earthquake had no experience of living in tents or taking care of them. People did not pitch tents correctly, and many collapsed under the weight of snow during the winter, burned down as people used stoves to keep warm, or flooded after torrential rains. Siting too was problematic: some camps were set up in rice fields or river beds.

There was a lack of understanding of the international standards that are designed to ensure that IDPs can live in dignified and appropriate environments. For example, the Pakistani government closed organised camps and made camp populations leave before proper services had been set up in alternative locations. Basic human rights and protection issues were not addressed.

The lack of involvement by recipients in decision-making was another major flaw. The first and often most effective responders to natural crises are affected communities themselves. With knowledge of their environment and unique coping mechanisms, capacities of local communities to deal with disaster must not be underestimated. In Pakistan, it was apparent that many camp residents were not involved in decisions determining their future or the services provided to them.

Overwhelming demand, remarkable response

RedR-IHE has been providing training and learning support and recruitment services for development and relief actors for 25 years. In Pakistan, it conducted capacity-building through tailor-made training courses, on-the-job training and individual coaching of almost 1,800 people from local and international NGOs, government departments, the military and UN agencies in Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Mansehra, Batagram and Islamabad. Obstacles on the ground included further earthquakes, landslides, which prevented some participants from reaching training courses, the absence of training venues due to the destruction of infrastructure and a lack of government and UN policies in the early stages. Methodology-wise, we conducted ongoing in-field/camp assessments to identify dynamic learning needs as they occurred, lend an ear to affected communities and respondents, engage local trainers and translators and international consultants, and design training and learning support activities in several languages, including Urdu, Pashto and English.

Initially, RedR-IHE worked with UNHCR to support camp managers in organised camps. With the rapidly changing context on the ground, however, this programme was constantly evolving. For example, the government’s decision that IDPs had to leave the camps meant that we had to cut short our camp management training programme to provide capacity-building exercises that could be applied in non-camp contexts. The complex political environment had to be carefully considered, especially in relation to the teaching of protection issues and the use of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

Implications for humanitarian programmes on the ground: some examples from RedR-IHE’s experiences

How are organisations or individuals using what they learn? Real impact often takes time to be measured. RedR-IHE has developed a monitoring and evaluation system to collect information consistently, ensure the quality of programmes and monitor impact by revisiting participants in their working environment. Some of the observations we made around impact concern the following:

  1. Attitude changes.
  2. Use of international standards and best practices.
  3. Cooperation and communication flows.

Changes in attitude after training courses are a good indication of the level of success of the courses. Learning motivation techniques helped community mobilisers empower beneficiaries, and increased levels of trust. We saw how some mobilisers became more respectful of people’s losses, for example offering condolences before launching into questionnaires. In Mansehra, for example, staff members of a local NGO treated recipients of humanitarian aid well, not just sending them away when registration cards could not be produced. As a result of training in protection and legal rights, mobilisers felt more confident and better able to advocate to improve conditions for camp residents; some even negotiated payments for those returning to their places of origin.

International standards such as Sphere were taught and implemented, to ensure basic human rights and quality standards. In Pakistan we know that many camp coordinators were not aware of such standards, but changed the way they operated after having received training. Practices changed overnight, and the benefits could be felt immediately in some camps.

In Abbotabad, our training sessions around child protection and rights-based education were accepted as part of the Directorate of Curriculum and Teacher Education (DCTE). As a result, child protection has been added to the DCTE’s curriculum for its workshops for 9,400 teachers in earthquake-affected areas. This effort, and standard-setting, was recognised and praised by UNESCO and the NWFP Secretary for Education, Schools and Literacy.

One example of best practice was identified in Siran camp close to Mansehra, where water-purification techniques were taught by demonstrating how gravel and layers of sand silt and other materials could act as a filter. According to a participant, the adoption of this technique reduced diarrhoea significantly in the camp.

Cooperation linked with information exchange is another vital ingredient in quality responses to post-emergency situations. An NGO Forum was created with Terre des Hommes in Mansehra, which gave many agencies a platform to meet. This made an immediate improvement in the flow of information, although actual impact is difficult to evaluate.

Finally, the International Organisation for Migration asked RedR-IHE to conduct a ‘Lessons Learned’ study on the Emergency Shelter Cluster, including facilitating workshops with several cluster members in five locations. Recommendations were subsequently used to inform policy decisions at international level on the usefulness of the cluster system.


RedR-IHE’s monitoring and evaluation mechanisms highlight that capacity-building and training events were useful in participants’ work, and were directly relevant. Repeatedly, we were told that it would have been more useful if such support had been received from the outset of the response. This suggests that training and learning support need to be part and parcel of effective emergency response. The precise shape and form of that support will require further attention. What is clear, though, is that the delivery of inappropriate shelter does not help recipients to survive harsh winter months, lighting stoves in tents without guidelines on using them safely does not protect beneficiaries, and the establishment of policies on IDPs without addressing protection issues and basic human rights undermines people’s dignity. The challenge lies in marrying the imperative for a rapid response with the need to ensure that the response is both adequate and professional. Here, timing does matter!

Silva Lauffer is Programme Manager – Humanitarian Services at RedR-IHE, London. Her email address is Silva would like to thank all the team members that contributed to the success of this programme in Pakistan. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of RedR-IHE.


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