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The Top Four Innovations in Emergency Response

Innovation is the word of the year in international relief and development. Here are four recent innovations we’ve seen in disaster response–and their potential downsides. 

1.       Plumpy’nut

Plumpy’nut changed everything. It saved the lives of more starving kids than ever before, by replacing the old f-100 formula (which tasted gross) with delicious, shelf-stable peanut paste. I didn’t require clean water and kids could eat it on their own. In addition to the innovation in product, Plumpy’nut is also an innovation in organizational structure. The product is patented, and it’s manufactured by a company, Nutriset, that sells it to NGOs.

Potential Downside: switching from formula to paste turned the whole system for treating malnutrition inside out. It changed the way that humanitarian groups categorized and treated starving children.  And the incorporation of a commercial product into the treatment of starving children makes a lot of people nervous.

More about Plumpy’nut at the New York Times.

2.       Crowdsourcing

Encompassing everything from gathering eye-witness reports for better media, solving problems through community expertise, or coordinating rescues of people trapped in earthquake rubble, crowdsourcing seeks to use the knowledge of large groups to change humanitarian aid.

Potential Downside: How do we make sure crowdsourced information is accurate? Will it make humanitarian response less professional, or of lesser quality? Is it all a big waste of time and energy that won’t lead to anything useful.

More about crowdsourcing

3.       Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping is the field of using geographical information to enhance crisis response. One example is the Ushahidi platform, which is also a crowd-sourced tool. Other forms of crisis mapping may not be crowdsourced at all. A single person or organization can use GIS coordinates to map events, locations of humanitarian response resources or other relevant factors.

Potential Downside: It’s a big new way to think about data and how we use it. Information like the precise coordinate of aid agency outposts or IDP camps can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

More on crisis mapping.

4.       Cash Transfers

When disaster strikes, people exhaust their savings and resources to survive the disaster and its aftermath. Maybe we should give them money to get them back on their feet. In many famines, there is food for sale in markets but no one can afford to buy it. Maybe we could just give people cash to buy their own food. Providing cash stimulates local economies and lets people choose the solution that is most appropriate to their situation.

Potential Downside:In my opinion, it kind of calls into question the whole idea of capitalism. It implies that any of the existing humanitarian aid systems and models are unnecessary. And if done wrong, it can severely damage local economies by triggering inflation.

More on cash transfers

UPDATE FROM MARK:  More information on new technologies in disasters is available in the United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation report New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts, co-authored by Patrick Meier of Ushahidi. Also, see Mark’s bloggingheads interview with Patrick Meier about his research into crisis mapping and crowdsourcing. 

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Why No One Wants to Upset Paul Kagame

The big news out the UN today is that top UN Human rights official Navi Pillay announced she will delay the release of a controversial report about Rwanda’s actions in the Congo (then Zaire) from 1993 to 2003. The so-called Mapping Report is an attempt to document alleged atrocities that occurred during the DRC’s long civil war, of which DRC’s neighbors played a lead role.   A draft of the report, leaked last week to Le Monde, alleges that the Rwandan military committed genocide against Rwandan hutus who fled to the DRC. At the time, a Tutsi militia, led by Paul Kagame, defeated Hutu forces that committed genocide against Rwandan Tutsis.  Kagame, of course, was recently elected to his third term as president of Rwanda. 

To put it lightly, this did not go over well in Kigali.  The Rwandan government has threatened to pull its troops out of all peacekeeping missions should the final draft of the report include the genocide allegation. As the Rwandan foreign minister cynically informs Phillip Gourevitch, “If you’re going to accuse our army of being a genocidaire army, don’t use us for peacekeeping.”

This is a threat that the United Nations has to take seriously. Rwanda has over 3,000 troops deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, making it the eighth largest troop contributing country to UN peacekeeping.  Rwandans make up the single largest contingent of the peacekeeping force in Darfur–a mission that is already struggling. It is no wonder that Pillay decided to delay its release. 

This episode goes to show how relatively small countries can punch above above their diplomatic weight class if they participate in UN peacekeeping.   There is simply not a global surplus of peacekeepers.  (And African forces are in particularly high demand.)  Unless global powers raise the political cost of Rwanda making these kinds of threats, the UN will have little interest in crossing Kagame. 

To wit, here is the Secretary General responding to a question about the Rwanda issue at a press stakeout earlier today.

Q: Sylvia Westall from Reuters, I wanted to ask you about Rwanda. Could you comment on Rwanda’s threat they may pull out their troops of UN peacekeeping missions starting in Darfur if they are accused of genocide in this upcoming report and if this does happen what will the UN do?

SG: First of all, the United Nations is very grateful to such a strong support and contribution of the Rwandan government to send their men and women as peacekeepers in UNAMID in Darfur and in UNMIS in Sudan and many other places, at least five missions they they are now taking part. It is very important, and I sincerely hope that such support and contribution will continue for peace and security in the region. The peace and security in Darfur and Sudan and elsewhere has implications, very important implications, for peace in the wider region. We are going to closely coordinate and work with President Kagame. He has been leading this leadership and he has been participating as one of the very important African leaders, not only in peace and security, but also as one of the co-chairs of MDG advocacy group and I am very much appreciative of his leadership.


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Angelina Jolie on Pakistan Emergency

The UN Refugee Agency’s most famous spokesperson asks the international community to do more to help in Pakistan. Angelina Jolie says, “this is not just a humanitarian crisis. It is an economic and social catastrophe.”  Watch. 

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UN Direct

S-G Condemns Attack in West Bank; ‘MDG Champions’ Named; New ASG for Legal Affairs Appointed; and more


Middle East: the SG condemned the killing of four Israelis today in the West Bank, calling it a “cynical and blatant attempt to undermine the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations starting tomorrow”.  Tony Blair, Representative of the Middle East Quartet (which includes the UN), will be present at the talks in D.C.


DRC: in response to questions raised over whether the UN was aware of the rapes which occurred in eastern DRC earlier than mid-August, the SG’s Spokesperson said that the SG had dispatched ASG for Peacekeeping Operations Atul Khare to the DRC (where he is now) to specifically learn more about the events and the UN’s response.  Khare is expected to brief the Security Council upon his return to NY next week.


MDG Champions: today the UN announced a group of UN Goodwill Ambassadors and Messengers of Peace who will lend their voices as champions of the MDGs to call for action in advance of the September 20-22 Summit.  The champions include Angelique Kidjo, Ronaldo, Her Majesty Queen Rania, Ricky Martin, Mia Farrow and Zinédine Zidane, among other celebrities and high-profile individuals from around the world.


Disabilities Conference: today marked the start of the three-day Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, under the theme of inclusion.  The Convention, known as the first new human rights convention of the 21st century, entered into force in 2008.  The U.S. joined as a signatory in July 2009.


Senior Appointment: today the SG has appointed Stephen Mathias (U.S.) as ASG for Legal Affairs, replacing Peter Taksøe-Jensen (Denmark).

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Emergency Telecoms at Work in Pakistan (Interview)

When a disaster like the Pakistan floods strike, one of the most urgent priorities is making sure that all of the aid agencies responding to the disaster can coordinate their relief activities on the ground.  At the most basic level, this means that they have to be able to talk to call each other and send emails.  The problem is, disasters can easily wipe out the means of communication. Enter emergency telecoms workers.  Like food aid distributions, emergency shelter and sanitation, emergency telecoms is the backbone of any relief effort.

Moments ago, I caught up with Dane Novarlic of the World Food Program who heads the emergency telecommunications efforts for Pakistan. We discuss what it took to get emegency telecoms set up amidst Pakistan’s epic floods.

EmergencyTelecoms Pakistan by UN Dispatch  A special thank you to Adele Waugaman, Senior Director, United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, which supports WFP’s IT deployments in emergencies. 


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Channel 16

Crowdsourcing continues to gain attention and resources.  Channel 16, a new effort from a coalition of NGOs, aims to be a fully crowdsourced multimedia resource on humanitarian disasters. It will include photos, video, and personal accounts, and serve as a rapid response news source with links to how people can help in a humanitarian emergency. You can see the Pakistan page here.

It’s interesting for a lot of reasons. It’s got a lot of institutional support, and it is aiming for a very reasonable goal. It wants to fill a gap in the mass media – accurate, timely, disaster information. Many complex humanitarian emergencies, like the famine in Niger, have received news coverage based almost entirely on NGO sources and reporting.  (If you don’t believe me, try to find a Niger article that doesn’t quite either Save the Children or Oxfam.)  We might as well skip the middleman and let the NGOs report directly, in a compelling way. Anyone can submit information to Channel 16, via text message, email, twitter, phone call, or an online form. They state that all reports will be verified.  

This is one of the faster, easier uses for crowdsourcing. They’re not trying to use it for disaster response, just disaster reporting. And I like the direct link to what people can do to help. We saw a lot of bad aid in response to the Haiti earthquake. It is good to link people easily to smart aid options.

I wonder, though, how much information they will get. While Channel 16 is in English, French, and Spanish, plenty of emergencies happen in countries that speak other languages. That leaves aid workers and other Western observers providing these crowdsourced reports. Will people have time to provide useful information to Channel 16 in addition to everything else they are doing? I think that the site runs the risk of having nothing but NGO press releases and datasets as its “information” – which would make it a clone of ReliefWeb, which is a great resource that already exists.

We’ll see how it goes. We desperately need a dynamic and useful site that’s rich with constantly updated information on the disasters no one bothers to talk about. It would be fantastic if that is what Channel 16 becomes.

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