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Humanitarian Aid: Moving the Dialogue Toward Prevention

Studies of international aid back up the old expression that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This past year, as with the years before, the international news has been replete with stories of humanitarian disasters. War, drought, flood, earthquake, disease — there are constantly populations in crisis, constantly people for whom the difference between life and death lies in the response of the outside world.

Perhaps it has always been this way. One thing that has changed, however, is who is doing the responding. Where disaster relief had once been overwhelmingly funded and provided by nations, increasingly we have seen that response to humanitarian disasters has been coming from the private sector — corporations, foundations, and individuals. Whether from the public or private sector, one dynamic that has remained constant in this work is the focus on relief, rather than on either reconstruction or prevention.

Having studied humanitarian crises for half a dozen years now, we at DARA — an independent organization committed to improving the effectiveness of aid for vulnerable populations — have come to understand how much the “relief mindset” has cost, in both dollars and lives. Research has shown that every dollar spent on preventative measures obviates the need for $7 in relief aid. In a world of limited funds, that makes an enormous difference.

Because of that, I’ve been at the Skoll World Forum, the premier international gathering of people involved in a movement called Social Entrepreneurship, in which creative individuals from a variety of sectors are finding innovative ways to address some of the world’s thorniest problems. Yet for all of their innovation, cultural and psychological barriers remain that continue to impede the focus on prevention and preparedness that has been shown to make the crucial difference for thousands upon thousands of lives. Even in a post-crisis response, how does an agency, a company, a foundation know what to do? Where do they start if they are not familiar with the dynamic of crisis, on the one hand, or the local language and customs on the other?

Our years of studying crises and responses have helped us identify the best and most important practices — practices and approaches that can be taught to anyone who wants to learn. We believe that a new generation of responders, the creative social entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum, can indeed take these lessons, apply them, and in doing so make the world a safer and more hospitable place for the most vulnerable of its children.