In an Emergency, Is It Best That Everyone Is a Firefighter?

Chris Herlinger | December 2, 2013

Photo: Ole Ramsing/ACT Alliance/DCA

Photo: Ole Ramsing/ACT Alliance/DCA

A friend and colleague of mine recently painted the following scenario:

“Your neighbor’s house is on fire. The fire department is there. All the hydrants are pumping water. Would you run across the street with another fire truck and more water?”

Of course you wouldn’t. But if you saw images on television of a huge disaster, like the one right now in the Philippines, you might conclude, “More is better.”

That would be an understandable reaction. But it wouldn’t necessarily be wise.

It is hard to convey how chaotic disaster scenes can be. But they are horrible, miserable things, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting any if you can help it.

Having spent time in Liberia immediately after the war of 2003, and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I can say this unequivocally: their many acts of heroism and kindness notwithstanding, survivors following a disaster are in a daze, aid workers are trying their best but are often at bay, and it is difficult to make precious sense of anything amid collapsed buildings, shards of glass and steel, and mounds of asbestos-laced rubble. (I will spare you details of stench.)

The fact is, it takes time to make sense of what to do and where to do it, and any humanitarian agency that doesn’t own up to that isn’t being truthful. Yet it is equally true that any aid agency responding to an emergency must act quickly – so there is a fine balance between “getting on it” and doing it wisely.

CWS responds to international emergencies in different ways. Where we have offices – such as in Pakistan and Afghanistan – we are able (security permitting, of course) to be among the first to provide immediate assistance.

We are immensely proud of what we’ve been able to do in many places like that. I well remember what my CWS colleague Marvin Parvez said of our quick response following the floods in northern Pakistan in late 2010: “It isn’t that a food package of rice and lentils and a little tea is a solution to people’s problems. But it’s a small step, and one that is greatly appreciated.”

In other places our job is challenging because we don’t have offices or operations. Of course, sometimes a decision is made to open an office for a short time and continue work, as we are doing now in Haiti.

In the more recent case of the Philippines, our staff has decided it is best to lend our support to partners who are already there and know the lay of the land. (We are providing  important technical support requested by several of our partners. But in the main, our contribution is to provide needed financial assistance in a very difficult environment.)

This is a common practice in the humanitarian world. Our partners are doing what we would be doing if we were responding “with boots on the ground,” but can’t because we do not have staff there. They are bringing a bit of immediate dignity to subsistence farmers, small fishermen, poor urban dwellers and female-headed families – in short, to those most-affected by Typhoon Haiyan and the least able to get quickly back on their feet.

Our partners are fellow members of the ACT Alliance, a humanitarian alliance of which we are proudly and happily a member, and they are doing the hard work of responding in a difficult situation because they know the country best, and we trust them to do that work.

We are stepping out of the way so they can tend to “the house on fire.” Sometimes, that is the best and smartest thing to do.

Chris Herlinger is senior writer for CWS

CWS is responding to the extensive damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan, which has killed as many as 10,000 people in the Philippines, and decimated cities such as Tacloban when it made landfall on November 8.  You can help.