Rapid Response Aid

There’s been some excellent responses on this blog and discussions elsewhere regarding Ben Anderson’s recent commentary on rapid response and emergency published in Berfrois. I just wanted to slightly broaden the debate given very recent discussions in the UK over a Rapid Response Facility (that Anderson mentions). In the last few days this was activated to provide a financial aid package and emergency capability to help contain Sierra Leone’s cholera epidemic which has already killed over 200 people (figures quoted by the BBC). The Rapid Response Facility (RRF) essentially fast-tracks financial aid to emergency partners such as the British Red Cross, Oxfam and others to provide medical assistance, anti-cholera drugs, water purification kits etc. According to DFID, the RRF

enables DFID to commit to rapid humanitarian funding for pre-qualified partners. This will be done in the first 72 hours following a rapid onset disaster, spike in a chronic humanitarian emergency, or other disasters as deemed necessary. Responding rapidly in humanitarian disasters ensures that more lives are saved and suffering is reduced.

‘Rapid’, of course, is a word often associated with aid and emergency and it often comes coupled with ‘network’. Just in the context of Sierra Leone, the deployment of the fund comes in the wake of the World Bank’s establishment of Rapid Response Growth Poles (RRGPs) which develop centres for economic growth and nodes to support further emergency delivery and long term population health and survival through energy infrastructure, community projects and grants. We see also UNESCO building a ‘rapid educational response’ of assessment and delivery whilst there are rapid response units within the OHCHR to assess deteriorating human rights situations.

Being ‘rapid’ is the hallmark of good response.

Britain’s system has come about in swift response to Lord Ashdown’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (2011), which highlighted the need to address a 72hr ‘window’ of opportunity – this is usual in emergency planning discourse for when it is crucial to act in an emergency in a critical period of time. A ‘window’ is also Ashdown’s term for the potential engagement of private business with humanitarianism. Business, he argues, holds potential expertise and is a potential ally to help ‘unblock’ specific opportunities. This language of pipelines and infrastructure is perhaps not out of place here, especially concerning the existing role private organisations play in running logistics and communications.

While the RRF requires all this speed and rapidity in relation to ‘rapid onset emergencies’ born out of ‘racing’, ‘rising’ and ‘turbulent’ conditions, there is a tension. The facility is meant to cut through ‘red tape’ and regulation just as it is explicitly not meant to bypass the usual problems of deciding, judging and legitimating claims for aid, or the anxieties that it will be misspent. DFID’s Andrew Mitchell made it clear to the BBC

Not only will our response be rapid, it will be efficient. We will monitor closely to make sure every penny of British aid achieves results and supports those in dire need.

While, DFID’s website explains

It enables DFID to work with partners that have a proven record of response. It also ensures, through a robust pre-qualification process, that partners provide high quality results and deliver value for money for UK tax payers and people affected by disasters. Partners who are judged to have performed badly will be removed from the RRF.

Rapid response aid, it seems, goes coupled with processes of oversight that happen in advance. It does this by the pre-approval of partners that have a proven record of response, although I haven’t yet found out what the process is for selecting and approving these partners, or what criteria is being worked to. Pre-qualification, however, can be revoked “at the first sign of poor performance”. Here is a list of the pre-approved partners.

Action Against Hunger; ActionAid; British Red Cross; CAFOD; Care International; Christian Aid; Concern; GOAL; Handicap International; HelpAge Interational; International Medical Corps; International Rescue Committee; Islamic Relief; MapAction; Mercy Corps Scotland; Merlin; Mine Advisory Group; Oxfam; Save the Children; ShelterBox; Tearfund; World Vision

Currently pre-qualified RRF goods and equipment providers are:

AST Systems; Butyl; Castell SatCom Radio; Evenproducts; Guava International; Lifesaver Systems; Osprey Plastics; Pump International; Reltex; Spectrum Biosecure; Standard Chartered Bank; and Toughstuff.

In his posting Ben Anderson cogently asks if  “the response to emergencies, are a key occasion when lives are valued or devalued and democratic life […] How, then, can the protocols through which ‘rapid response’ is organised be opened up to public negotiation and contestation in advance of an emergency?”

While the RRF seems absolutely appropriate and necessary, perhaps the speed with which it is deployed should not allow it to fly past precisely these sorts of questions and scrutiny.


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