The Haiti Earthquake response was characterised by unprecedented participation. Even the Asian Tsunami, as messy as it was, was not the free-for-all that Haiti became almost overnight. Haiti was an easy flight from the East Coast, the government was flattened, and its media profile was huge... and these factors perhaps made it a vogue response.
Whatever the reasons, many of our fellow do-gooders were stunned, outraged or shocked at the challenges, inefficiencies and difficulties of coordination in Port-au-Prince. So much, in fact, that OCHA commissioned a report calling for a new wave of information sharing to help cater to the "volunteer & technical communities" who it suggests are likely to create a "new reality" in the humanitarian world.
I would argue that this is primarily deflection and that OCHA (20 years old: humanitarian reform is 6 yrs old) would be better off recognising and focussing on fixing its own internal failures in coordinating successfully among UN agencies and established, effective INGOs.... rather than looking externally for scapegoats. But I digress....
Many, if not most, of those anguished and earnest souls desperately seeking attention in Haiti will, in this writer's humble opinion, be unlikely to be encountered by professional aidworkers again in some of the complex theatres (Chad, DRC, Afghanistan) or in smaller or less accessible disasters (Cote D'Ivoire, Niger, Utar Pradesh..). I will eat my hat if Sean Penn shows up in Zimbabwe next year.
Nevertheless, this is not a constructive focus. I do think that the above OCHA report is right in the fact that information sharing in the humanitarian sector very definitely needs a shake up... a revolution even.
But forget inter-agency coordination. It is my belief that we're on the cusp of a new era in the industry: one in which a new generation of professionalism will be defined primarily by the ability of agencies to coordinate information successfully internally. Yup, that's right... C'mon....hands up those of you who truly believe that your agency successfully manages, filters, and shares relevant information across the right channels...
Disaster response is primarily an exercise in logistics. That may be a contentious statement and I respect the importance of specialists in livelihoods, agriculture, WASH, health, etc. who define new and better approaches... but ultimately the thing boils down to logistics. There's no getting around it.
The crucial part of logistics of course is the supply chain. Sure we want to know what our fleet is up to and where our assets are...But the big money is in our supply chain... What we're getting into theatre, when, how and then (most critically) information about its distribution to the victims of the disaster.
Some agencies (notably MapAction) have come onboard in recent years and tried to drag our industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Unfortunately, they were greeted mainly by agencies who were unprepared with the level of data sophistication necessary to take advantage of their offerings.
Why is it that even large INGOs don't have a handle yet on disaster supply chain information management? All you need is a web-based system that allows you to set up geographical datasets (warehouses?) that track two transactions (in and out) on categorised stock. This will at least allow you to track and share what you're putting into theatre, when and where. If its hierarchical and web based, you have direct access to the global data set. This in itself would be invaluable information that could be accessed and shared and compiled across agencies....
But think about taking that online SCM software down to beneficiary level. Think about being able to produce dynamic maps that show what you have put where, in real time, down to a household level...
There is no excuse. This is way overdue.
The Fritz Institute has withdrawn support for Helios. Sahana and Aidmatrix are making interesting moves in the right direction but are not finding the funding they need. Maybe its not just a question of funding though. Why is it that there are so few companies out there actively trying to solve this problem? Its a potential meta-win for the aid world! It could be huge.... and yet 22 years after the invention of the WWW, there are only two contenders out there trying to get this right!.... and they are struggling!!
So what's going on?!
In my opinion, the problem is not just funding. There are plenty of donors out there trying to kickstart a new paradigm for aidwork. The problem is primarily internal: a function of the decentralisation of the industry. INGO's are directed by - and distanced from - their operational units: country offices. Country Directors are focussed more on funding, than on their supply chains. INGOs, largely because of this weighting, are still trapped at a level of data immaturity in which they just don't have the level of supply chain process standardisation necessary to translate into a logical, system-friendly, relational structure.
Why am I posting this? I'd like to know your opinions. What will it take? How can it happen? How can we get over this hump?
The age in which agencies can abuse the romanticism and remoteness of their work to bask in a luddite, blissful ignorance, ended about ten years ago.
And to Sean Penn and the Technical and Volunteer Communities who were so frustrated in Haiti, I say this: Try Papua New Guinea, try Chad, try Liberia, try Afghanistan, try Sudan... try it for five or ten years.... If you don't want to do that and you're still angry at the shortcomings of the industry, don't just step in to the nearest theatre and point fingers: help us fix this problem.
Help us to wake up and smell the coffee.