Expats at work

  • We need to bring in international staff to ensure we learn from the worldwide best practices
We would do a disservice to those who seek help if we did not invest in the necessary capacities to rebuild

Apr 26, 2016-With most disaster responses around the world, at some point there are questions about how much the responders spend and how accountable they are. Responses to natural disasters, such as the Gorkha Earthquake and others from the Asian Tsunami to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, are large and complex operations. To meet the needs on the ground, agencies responding to such disasters face huge logistical and financial challenges—lack of road access, lack of local experience in dealing with catastrophes of a huge size and the sheer scale of the need, to name a few. 

Having worked in many contexts from flooding in South East Asia to the food and nutrition crisis in South Sudan—a country which was two-thirds under water for two-thirds of the year and where often the only option for distributing aid is through expensive helicopters—I have seen passionate, committed international aid workers, in collaboration with their equally dedicated local counterparts, overcoming massive challenges to deliver a high standard of response. In Nepal too, during the chaos and confusion of the earthquake, many organisations were on the ground distributing aid within 72 hours.

Unpopular but necessary

However, to run a major humanitarian response operation such as for the Gorkha Earthquake, which can often run to many tens, if not hundreds, of millions rupees, agencies need skilled personnel. They need project leaders with the experience of running large teams, people dealing with sudden onset of disasters—those who can drop everything they are doing on the other side of the world and respond within a very short space of time—support to set up the mission from the headquarters, dedicated and experienced people to manage the funds coming in from many different, small and large scale donors, and people on the ground with technical skills who can advise the locals. Most importantly, those people are required who have done this before and have the necessary experience. 

For example in the Haiti earthquake, which killed over 250,000 and destroyed much of the capital, outside technical assistance was vital to carry out a response. Mistakes were made, but many of the lessons have been transferred to Nepal to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated.

In many cases, especially in the early stages of a disaster, ensuring that we learn from the worldwide best practices means bringing in experienced people. These tend to be the expensive international staff who are not very popular in the media and public perception. This begs the question: Why do INGOs insist on hiring individuals who are unpopular and lack the knowledge of the local context and send them to the field? The short answer is because of the skills and knowledge of international best practice that they bring in. 

Enhancing local capacities

Response agencies want to deliver high quality work, provide technical assistance to local partners and track what happens on the ground. A vital part of this process is enhancing the capacity of the local staff. This is not to criticise the skills of national colleagues, whose contribution is vital to run an effective response, but rather to ensure that they benefit from international best practice. Most expatriates on emergency deployment do not stay long—typically three to six months and maximum one year—before handing over the responsibilities to the national staff. This is usually enough time to train national counterparts and transfer skills. Expatriates leave after having ensured the skills are in place.

In most cases, criticism would be louder if the right people were not in place or if expatriates were content with building poor quality schemes and distributing faulty materials. Sometimes this does happen, and we would be churlish not to admit that. But this occurs to a lesser extent than would be the case if agencies did not have experienced staff helping to ensure quality of distribution and construction. 

Money matters

However, getting the right people costs money, sometimes a lot, which is why most agencies responding to the Gorkha Earthquake have invested a lot in administration costs. The government of Nepal also uses a 20:80 ratio of administration costs to programme costs for both themselves and the INGOs, which includes salaries for national and international staff, vehicles to get to the field, insurance and medical coverage for the staff, generator fuel to keep the lights on and so on. 

Many organisations deliver through local partners, to whom a lot of autonomy is given. This also reduces the amount of money that the organisations need to spend on expensive expatriates and ensures that the money stays in the local community. To guarantee that the partners receive the support they need, organisations need to offer the best service to disaster victims and provide them with technical guidance, ensuring that local and international standards are met. The only way to make sure this happens is by investing in quality staff. Sadly, this costs money and shows up in administrative costs. 

Agencies  want to spend the most on beneficiaries as far as possible and with administrative costs under government rules. They also want to deliver the highest quality possible because the beneficiaries deserve the best. There will always be times when they fall short and when that happens, the media have an important role in highlighting their errors and mistakes. However, we would do a disservice to those who seek help if we did not invest in the necessary capacities to rebuild. We believe that our response is stronger when we invest in our staff. This would also set a strong legacy for our beneficiaries and for Nepal.



Pearlman is the former team leader of the Dan Church Aid’s Nepal Earthquake Emergency Project

Published: 26-04-2016 08:15

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