Nation & World

Experts get down to business at 2009 Humanitarian Action Summit

6 min read

In December 2000, Dorothy Sewe and her family — fleeing tribal violence in Kenya — escaped across the border into Tanzania. In the first few days, all 17 huddled under plastic bags in the pouring rain. They camped outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, begging for help.

The family, including Sewe’s mother and the seven children of her slain sister, moved to a succession of refugee camps. With four blankets among them, the family slept under one of the tarps they were given. The other they sold for food.

Food was scarce, typhoid and malaria raged, and water for cooking came from a ditch that smelled of sewage. A year later, with safe passage to the United States, Sewe said she left the last camp “with a broken heart.”

Last week, she was the only ex-refugee among 150 aid experts, fieldworkers, and disaster-relief scholars who gathered at Harvard for an annual conference. Outside one session, Sewe said, “I’m the only nobody here.”

The 2009 Humanitarian Action Summit, sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), was the third of a series that began in 2006 and continued in 2007. (A fourth is planned for 2010.)

Sir John Holmes, undersecretary general of humanitarian affairs at the United Nations, delivered the conference’s most thorough assessment of present reality during a Friday night (March 27) keynote at the Northwest Science Building.

Nine out of 10 disasters in the world are related to climate change, he said, the consequence of “a new normal of extreme weather”: an accelerating pace of floods, drought, heat waves, and catastrophic storms.

And climate change is just one of the “megatrends” likely to challenge us in the near future, said Holmes, who is the U.N. emergency relief coordinator.

Add to that large-scale hunger as agriculture in Asia and Africa is shaken by environmental pressures; resource conflicts over energy, arable land, and fresh water; population growth and rapid urbanization; a continuing global food crisis; and a growing intensity of regional conflicts where an increasing disrespect for international law has made security for both locals and aid workers “increasingly perilous,” he said.

Overlaying all of this is a drumbeat of health challenges in the developing world, said Holmes: women’s health (largely neglected), national health systems (in disarray), and tropical diseases (still affecting the world’s 1 billion poorest people).

Disaster relief takes on the extra challenges of gender-based violence, he said, along with safety for civilians, and infectious diseases — which in a disaster setting account for two-thirds of all child deaths.

Even in the face of these daunting megatrends, said Holmes, “we’re not helpless.” He pointed to “countertrends” that included technological advances in communication and health care delivery.

Holmes urged the international gathering of aid experts to create their own new trends in humanitarian action. Address chronic problems before they blossom into disasters, he said — and adopt a “new business model” of aid that is less centered on Western response and more focused on prevention and preparedness within developing nations.

“Local answers are usually the best,” said Holmes.

The first humanitarian action summit in 2006 was co-sponsored by Dartmouth Medical School. Since then, the conferences have evolved into family gatherings of a sort, where experts from around the world discuss the challenges of international aid.

This year’s humanitarian action conference, largely at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, was built around seven working groups, which continue collaborations during the year.

The groups represent the multiple challenges of international aid: human resources, health collaboration, data management, civilian protection, mental health, surgical standards, and — new this year — applied technology.

There are 2.2 billion mobile phones in the developing world, said Claire Thwaites, a technology expert with the United Nations Foundation. Why not turn them to task?

In South Africa, she said, a pilot program is under way to broadcast HIV-prevention messages over cell phones — 365 million messages in the last year.

International aid workers also need to fully understand and embrace geographic information systems (GIS) technology, said Firoz Verjee, a geospatial analyst from George Washington University. It’s a way to visualize and interpret the “vast clouds of data” that any disaster brings, he said.

During emergencies, “information is as important as food,” said HHI Fellow Patrick Meier, a technology blogger at Cell phones, Twitter, television, and bush radio stations can all help map — or even predict — a crisis for disaster experts, he said. The same technologies can “crowdfeed” the right information back to the populace that needs it.

Every disaster has “an ecology of information,” said Meier, a Tufts University Ph.D. student and an expert on using technology for early warning systems. “We have to make sense of it.”

Some humanitarian aid in the past has been like a charging elephant — powerful, headlong, and thoughtless, said Tufts University scholar and practitioner of aid Peter Walker. He delivered a March 27 talk on the humanitarian challenge of climate change — the kind of large-scale catastrophe that historically has made regimes more authoritarian and human lives shorter, sicker, and more violent.

But the future of humanitarian aid has to be a creature of new partnerships and skills; of better data than ever; and — most of all — a creature knowledgeable about local context.

“You have got to be,” said Walker to the gathered aid experts, “a dancing elephant.”

Sewe, now a graduate student at the School for International Training in Vermont, admitted coming to the Harvard conference with a little bitterness and skepticism. She had huddled under a blue tarp with little to eat in Tanzania. She had seen the elephants charge ahead instead of dance.

But the three days changed her, said Sewe, who in the last session on Saturday (March 28) said the final words of the conference from her seat in Tsai Auditorium.

“As a grandmother of 13, and someone who has seen a lot in the world,” said Sewe, “I am leaving this conference very, very humbled, to know that what I have been thinking about all along — that nobody cares — is a wrong assumption, and I ask you to forgive me.”

She went on: “After all these three days of wonderful presentations, full of compassion, I now have hope, and I believe that one day there will be peace on Earth and refugees will go home.”