​Humanitarian crises are mounting in complexity and scale. Can our responses remain the same?

Super Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013. More than 9,000 perished in the Nepal earthquake of 20151. Around the world, natural disasters, pandemics and man-made hazards affect millions each day.

When calamities strike, the vulnerable are the hardest hit. In emergencies, local authorities may be overwhelmed and resources fall short. This is where an international pool of humanitarian actors can plug the gaps to save lives and alleviate suffering of those who survived, during and after the disasters.

SingHealth has been involved in supporting volunteer medical missions in the region to raise healthcare standards. Many healthcare staff volunteer their time to join disaster relief humanitarian medical missions. SingHealth is also involved in post-disaster recovery capacity building programmes that help mitigate the after effects of disasters and allow communities to recover quickly.

To share best practices, deepen international partnerships and build networks of cooperation, SingHealth organised the second International Conference on Humanitarian Medical Mission (ICHMM) in November 2019. The 3-day event brought together delegates from 19 countries.

Heads up: Bigger humanitarian challenges ahead

In his plenary speech titled, “Mobilising for humanity – a coalition for resilience”, Mr Benjamin William, Secretary-General of the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) called for humanitarian actors to collaborate. He spelt out the challenges in humanitarian responses as the frequency and scale of disasters continue to grow.

“Globally, almost 250 million people are affected by natural disasters each year. Over the past decade, the number of people who rely on humanitarian assistance has more than tripled while the cost of responding has increased six-fold,” he said.

Due to climate changes, natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts and typhoons are increasing in intensity. Pandemics in the like of Ebola or dengue fever will continue to rage. Political situations have also displaced large communities, as seen with the Syrian or the Rohingya refugees.

Mr William called on humanitarian actors to work together as no single humanitarian actor or government has the capacity and capability to handle increasingly complex humanitarian disasters. Even Japan, the world leader in disaster preparedness, needed international assistance after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Humanitarian actors therefore need to take a longer-term view and use their collective resources more effectively.

Urgent need for a coordinated approach

One initiative by the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement which SRC belongs to, is to build a “one billion coalition for resilience” – an invitation to individuals, communities, organisations, business and governments to be agents of change. This aims to strengthen resilience and better prepare communities for imminent threats.

By working together, humanitarian actors can promote humanitarian diplomacy to persuade decision-makers and opinion leaders to act in the interests of vulnerable people and protect the space for humanitarian work. To further the cause, there is a need to engage both traditional and social media to increase awareness and support of humanitarian work.

Networking with an array of partners is also beneficial as each contribute unique capabilities to the situation, such as heavy assets which often only the military can provide.

Through collaboration, resources can be better allocated to reduce duplication and wastage. For example, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, most of the aid was concentrated within a 3-km radius of the disaster centre of Tacloban, while remote islands around it were underserved. It would have been useful to share information and spread out the aid more evenly.

Mr William also stressed the importance of understanding local needs and engaging local NGOs and authorities when providing humanitarian help. This builds community resilience and ensures that solutions are sustainable when the humanitarians exit. For example, it may be more practical to use medical supplies that can be sourced locally instead of imported ones that will not be available in the long term.

In addition, humanitarian actors can consider working more with the private sector. By thinking out of the box and finding common grounds with corporations, it can lead to a win-win situation. Two possible areas of collaboration are finding innovative solutions and disaster risk reduction.

Collaborate, not compete

With pressing challenges threatening to stretch resources further, Mr William urged humanitarian actors to focus on the interests of the vulnerable they seek to serve. Bound by the common goal to save lives, more can be done when humanitarians apply their collective forces in collaboration, rather than compete with one another.

1 Figures from World Vision