The Standby Task Force (SBTF) has developed clear guidelines for the kinds of disaster situations we activate for, whether natural or man-made. The SBTF has provided crisis informatics and mapping support to “boots-on-the-ground” humanitarian relief organizations. As highlighted by world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly currently taking place in New York City, the severity and frequency of both man-made and natural disasters have increased significantly over the past decade.
The year of 2014 has been a challenging year for both individuals and communities around the world. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has spread rapidly and is having multiple compounding effects on provision of medical services, health infrastructure, and commerce in a number of nations. Forty-one ongoing-armed conflicts, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, create instability and insecurity in the lives of those caught in the crossfire. Rape used as a weapon of war increases while the number of internally displaced persons and refugees continues to grow. Prolonged floods in Pakistan complicate both World Food Programme and Pakistani government efforts to address an entrenched famine, affecting millions. The impact of climate change has finally caught the attention of world leaders and made its way onto the Security Council agenda.
In consideration of this, Joyce Monsees, Volunteer Engagement Lead for the SBTF, recently guest lectured about SBTF for a university. She received a timely question from one of the students that brings up an important issue facing organizations receiving a deployment request. Joyce’s response to this question strikes at the core of the difficult decision that responding organizations must make in determining when and where to commit their resources:
Q: As a global disaster information organization, have you ever had a situation where a few disasters were occurring in different places around the world and different disaster response agencies in each area has requested activation of your services?
A: This is a great question. When the Standby Task Force is activated, we commit our efforts to that one disaster so we can produce the best possible results for those victims. We regret having to turn down an organization’s request but spreading our resources will not be helpful to either set of victims, The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) will present that new activation request to another NGO (non-governmental organization) within our network. Some of our members belong to these other NGOs too so if their other group takes the activation, those members may break from our current work, to assist them instead. We are not a competitive network, but understand that those with certain skills may be more useful there.
Most of our activations have a set time period of 1-2 weeks so overlapping disasters is rare. However, your question is timed well since the Ebola outbreak has changed that. We are currently in a long-term activation to produce information reports for ground teams responding to the epidemic. There are multiple organizations helping since some have specific skill sets like technology support, statistics and translation. It is also still hurricane season within an El Niño year so we may still have typhoons in the Pacific, unusual monsoonal rains in some areas and severe drought in others. With this long-term activation, we will need to strategize as a network to decide who assists if a new disaster occurs.
Ultimately, whenever a humanitarian organization provides relief services and support in a crisis setting, the single most important issue is the safety and security of the populations served. The principle of “Do No Harm” or Primum Non Nocere is central to the work of the Standby Task Force in how we undertake our work. Stay tuned for more updates soon.