Coping with Humanitarian Crises: The Strategic Approach - A Framework to Unravel, Prioritize and Coordinate Vulnerability and Complexity Factors

A successful humanitarian operation is one that mitigates the urgent needs of a population with a sustainable reduction of their vulnerability in the shortest time and with the least resources. With dramatic examples from actual crises, Rolando Tomasini and Luk Van Wassenhove, set out in this paper the need for a strategic approach for two reasons. First is the vulnerability factors that can exacerbate the initial trigger of a crisis. Second is the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality that regulate the actions of the organizations.

by Luk Van Wassenhove, Rolando Tomasini
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Disasters and emergencies are constantly occurring all over the world, yet despite their magnitude and intensity not all of them become crises. Disaster can affect systems across communities and threaten priorities and goals. Crises occur when the community's authorities are unable to improve conditions with their own capabilities, resources and response mechanisms. For those same reasons, crises often require not only external support but a strategic approach that will address unforeseen needs and factors.

This working paper by Rolando M. Tomasini, Research Associate, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove, the Henry Ford Chaired Professor in Manufacturing at INSEAD, sets out the need for a strategic approach for two reasons; the vulnerability factors that can exacerbate the initial trigger of a crisis, and the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality that regulate the actions of the organizations.

Consecutive seasons of failed crops and extreme weather were severely impacting food security and availability throughout a few members of the Southern African Development Community. By March 2002, the World Food Program and other agencies began an emergency operation with the local authorities. They estimated an immediate need of 1.4 million tons of food in addition to another 4 million for the following 12 months. As the operation began, they quickly realised that the crisis was beyond food issues. HIV had reduced the labor force, grain stocks had been mismanaged, and economic downturn had reduced incomes and productivity, creating poverty in some areas. Also, there were severe supply issues to remote regions.

While El Salvador is situated in a highly vulnerable geographic area (hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, etc) social and economic conditions have increased the population's vulnerability toward disasters. Poverty and high urban population densities, precarious housing conditions, and the legacy of a 12 years' civil war played an impact in the emergency response activities to the 2001 set of earthquakes (6.5 and 7.6 on the Richter scale). The unanticipated interaction of these factors sat the stage for the humanitarian organizations involved in the relief operation of such a politically polarized environment. They had to find ways of maintaining the principles of neutrality and impartiality in the extremely polarized climate to avoid manipulation of aid.

In the working paper, the authors propose that those responsible for putting in place an operation in times of disaster should use the Pressure and Release Model (Blaikie, P., T. Cannon, I. Davis, and B. Wisner (1994) At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters. Routledge, London) to understand the general progression of vulnerability and to analyse the nature of these vulnerability factors. Using the model provides the opportunity to classify the impact of the factors on the disaster and how they shape the complexity of the relief operation as a whole.

A format to classify and map the different vulnerability factors is also proposed which should help to forecast and manage critical points where the crisis could escalate or become more complex.

The objective is to provide a better estimate of the needs, challenges and limitations so that a response can be designed, coordinating relevant resources and information, to address all the contributing vulnerability factors while also adhering to the fundamental humanitarian principles. This allows a strategic approach to prioritising needs and activities which will also identify the critical points in the operation where more information may be needed to aid coordination and avoid conflict or escalation of the crisis.


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