Once again the international humanitarian community came together at the annual International Aid & Trade Event held in Geneva, Switzerland, from 29 to 30 January 2008. Participants came to network, learn, and improve coordination and communication in the work they do. They came to share knowledge and experience in order to increase the effectiveness of aid and humanitarian relief.
For the third consecutive year, ICVolunteers was involved in different aspects of the Aid & Trade Event. Volunteers wrote session reports and documented the conferences and debates with photographs and videos. There was also a team of volunteers involved in welcoming the participants and dealing with room supervision.
BBC foreign correspondents Brian Hanrahan and Kate Adie were sharing their knowledge and directing workshop discussions of the Event. Sessions focused on issues including law, order and human security, pre-disaster recovery planning, shelter provision coordination, containing pandemics, partnering for relief: optimizing logistics, media and disasters, strengthening capacity in disaster response and financing for development. An important part of the Aid & Trade event was, in addition, the exhibition of suppliers and humanitarian organizations, showing humanitarian equipment, training tools and showcases of the work done in the field.
Here are a few interesting facts discussed during the debates. 12 billion dollars are spent every year on humanitarian relief efforts. Due to climate change and global warming, this figure is unfortunately not likely to decrease, more to the contrary. 80% of this budget is spent in Africa, yet very little, if any of the products and items used for the relief efforts are actually produced on the continent. One of the biggest expenditures goes into air cargo, representing a huge cost, pointed out Mr. David Dickie, Executive Director of Advance Aid (www.advanceaid.org).
The question is how this can be changed? What can be done to actually create local jobs where humanitarian disasters occur? One of the answers given by the panel of speakers discussing humanitarian response efforts was the fact that it is not enough to intervene when disasters actually hit. Indeed, preparation is needed. The concept of local hot spots and sustainable business comes into play, as it means that the humanitarian goods are actually stocked up where they eventually will be needed.
The same sessions showed also that when disasters such as the tsunami occur, the first response is heavily based on help by the populations that are actually affected. Only at a later stage comes in the international aid. The key message when looking at all the issues at hand is to approach them from a holistic point of view.
Sally Begbie, of Global Hand (www.globalhand.org), talked about the relation between corporate donors and humanitarian organizations. She compared it to a successful relationship with a marriage after dating, resulting in a solid marriage, hopefully. And of course, in successful marriages, communication is vital. Communication not only needs to connect sectors, for them to understand each other, but also communication between headquarters and the field. This latter point is not easy to achieve, but it is all about finding ways to reduce the divide, increase mutual understanding, and use tools such as the ones developed by Compass, a French non-profit organization (www.compassquality.org). The question here is also how effective practices from the private sector can be used in the public sector and by international organizations.
Jonathan Potter, Executive Director of People In Aid (www.peopleinaid.org), pointed out that human resource management is still a marginal field for humanitarian organizations, yet it is absolutely critical, whether working with regular staff, short-term consultants or volunteers. Building institutional memory can help organizations be more efficient and learn from their errors, using tools such as technology, video conferences, etc. But of course, as pointed out by FranÃ§ois Grunewald from Compass "nothing can replace face to face contact"; the tools can only help in addition.
"I'm pleased to see that we have managed to improve the event a little every year. This year, we strived to bring in more substance, tackling the real issues rather than focusing on institutional presentations," pointed out Sula Bruce, Aid & Trade International Director. "Also, there is, at this point, much closer collaboration with the ICV Team of volunteers who have been wonderful."
That link was much felt by the volunteers too. Jenni Reindel, one of them, put it this way: "I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity of volunteering at the Aid and Trade Event. I thoroughly enjoyed being a panel assistant on Tuesday and was also lucky enough to be doing a job where I got to hear so many interesting speakers!"
Katherine Bothager, one of the reporters of the Strengthening Capacity in Disaster Response session gave the following feedback: "Although I enjoyed volunteering for years in my home country, I often found myself doing very mundane, low-level work. When I moved to Geneva, I wanted to continue volunteering in some way, and I was thrilled to find ICVolunteers. I was empowered to do substantive, professional-level work, and was given the opportunity to write three reports for the Aid and Trade Conference. In addition to complementing my career goals, I was able to attend a conference on topics I care deeply about, keep my writing skills up-to-date, and meet many wonderful volunteers and conference staff, not to mention conference presenters and exhibitors."