A way forward

Addressing root causes through independent, skeptical and disruptive action

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On 30 January, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (2019 – nCoV) a public health emergency of international concern, greatly elevating the international awareness and action around the spreading virus. The H2H Network, a member network providing humanitarian action support to crises around the world, joined the international and local response community to evaluate how it might be of help.

At first examination, this is not a crisis like others to which humanitarian-to-humanitarian service providers would provide assistance. On a practical level, how are we going to respond to such a global yet local crisis? Its definition as a crisis is not even clear. Of global concern with undetermined local impact, is it even right for us to focus on it and possibly divert attention (and funding) from discreet and demanding local crises that are overshadowed as it is?

Yet, in another way, it is no different from so many crises percolating around the world. How we respond can show us a way forward, whether for a pandemic or a climate-change induced sudden emergency or even displacement forced by conflict.

The issues quickly emerging are fueled by the same global yet local phenomenon plaguing ultra-local or hyper-global conflicts and crisis: Dis-information, distrust of others and of governments, unclear and shifting priorities. For coronavirus, the immediate focus is on the practical medical needs, but without a parallel emphasis on the more universal issues, the information spread will worsen the spread of the disease, and after many infected and too many deaths, we will again remind ourselves that we are not addressing these broad and cerebral issues more directly.

Issues around information, or lack thereof, as well as trust, exist on the ground, in the village and town square, and in the digital sphere. They are as prevalent in Beni as they are in Sahel and Singapore. Genocide in Rakhine was fueled by the same root cause of distrust and dis-information as the displacement crisis in Venezuela.

Yet we continue to treat these root causes too late. We need to re-think what humanitarian action is. We need to examine and re-define the meaning of help. How do we give truth and trust a fighting chance? How do we preserve dignity? How do we identify evil and separate it from mere misfortune?

These are dilemmas that the old model of humanitarian response is not set up to address. The ‘sector’ understands that the old way of sweeping in with massive teams is over, thank goodness. But we still lead with the symptoms rather than the root causes. Shelter, sanitation and food must always be first at the forefront of a response, but for every tent there should be independent WiFi and power connections. For every camp manager there should be a data manager. For every portable sanitation station should be an open, easy to use and always-on universal feedback station. For every logistics manager, we need a data analyst mapping how mis-information spreads, and a data visualizer making sense of factual information for everyone’s consumption. For every protection officer, we need a political scientist exploring – and helping to prevent – the flow of money.

It is time to stop suggesting key, cross-cutting functions like community engagement are ‘nice to haves’, it is time to stop treating social media analysis as something an inexperienced staff person can add to their long list of responsibilities. These skills are necessary – at the outset – to get a grip on crises today, and they should be demanded immediately when an action is needed.

Today’s first responders need to include social scientists, data analysts, investigative journalists and communication experts. Maybe historians and philosophers too. Tents are futile if not accompanied – from the start – with the tools to address root causes.

This might be where networks of experts play a key role. The members of H2H Network are often referred to as ‘niche’ in the sector. The 50+ agencies deploy specialized services and experts in emergencies, and they often work on broad global analysis as well. They employ trained and experienced data scientists, communicators, journalists, and social scientists. These agencies are by nature nimble and entrepreneurial. As experts in one area, they have mastered how to partner with complementary experts for better results. They tend to be small in staff and in resources, doing more with less. Their status as ‘too important to fail yet too small to fund’ has forced them to be creative and independent in how they are funded.

They are not the only solution, but they offer incremental radicalism through a model focused on technical expertise, independence, skepticism, collectiveness and disruption. They are necessary for better humanitarian action.

For coronavirus, that means deploying a global yet local disinformation system with factual and verified information in global and local languages and support to local media and journalists. It also should include an equally robust information analysis, visualization and dissemination system with critical information on cross-border and local social, political and economic pressures. It might also include ‘do no harm’ training and monitoring of security issues that can impact medical response. All should be integrated with traditional action, but should go beyond humanitarian infrastructure to reach the general public and civil society alike.

Independent, skeptical and disruptive action is necessary to lead us in these times of uncertainty and hyper-global yet ultra-local emergencies. Let’s bravely invent a new way forward. 

Go to the profile of Rebecca Petras

Rebecca Petras

Humanitarian and Policy Adviser, H2H Network

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