Responding to a disaster in a rural setting involves making sure a family gets back in sync with the planting season, that they have sufficient seed and fertilizer to put in the ground at the right time. If you miss the rainy season, that farmer and his family are going to rely on food handouts through the next agricultural season. Another important aspect of rural disaster response is restoring a family's living space if it has been destroyed. Shelter has shown itself to be more than protection from the elements. There is a very real and positive psychological impact that accompanies helping a family rebuild its house. In a rural environment rebuilding houses and providing support to reestablish livelihoods is prioritized. From that point forward, the family can usually manage its own recovery process.
What is so different about families living in the city?
These assumptions about subsistence-oriented livelihoods don't hold in an urban setting, where most people live in apartment buildings or multifamily dwellings owned by someone else, and few families grow the food they eat. Urban livelihoods revolve around earning enough money to buy the things needed for survival, whether it's groceries at the local supermarket or medicine at the local pharmacy. The vulnerabilities in urban areas result from an interruption in income and price shocks that make crucial commodities unaffordable. We're seeing this in Yemen, where the cost of bread has increased 75 percent over the past nine months. All of a sudden the families that were buying bread from their local markets can't afford it anymore. There's still bread there to buy, but most people can't afford it.
In urban areas the idea is to provide a small amount of money to families within the first few days of a disaster so they can buy what they need. Then we focus on ways to put family members to work short term with day jobs. In Haiti we hired unskilled labor to remove rubble. So, in addition to clearing away rubble from disaster sites, we offered a way for families to generate income so they could go to the markets and buy the things they need.
What are some of the common mistakes that aid organizations make?
It's important that aid organizations work alongside a community and that the aid that is provided match a community's needs. The community has to buy into the vision of the program or the assistance that is provided doesn't maximize impact. Also the community has to be able to sustainably manage the infrastructure that's put into place during the program. A mistake that's frequently made is providing a community more sophisticated, more advanced infrastructure than it can manage. For example, in the developing world on any given day two thirds of infrastructure that people rely on to access their drinking water is not working. This is because community maintenance and ownership of that water source was not thought through well enough ahead of time. As an example, Afghanistan has a deep water table, so you bring in a borehole driller and sophisticated pump and a generator to create a well. After a certain period of time the community is expected to maintain the well and pump and generator. More often than not, we see that the community doesn't have the resources or the technical understanding to manage these systems. So right beside a sophisticated municipal water system, you have families retrieving water from the river because the system wasn't working. Usually, a simpler, easier to manage technology—like a well with a rope and bucket—is easier and more impactful than a sophisticated municipal water system that has high probability of breaking down.
Urbanization is not the only trend you are seeing in disaster management. How are you using technology to help deliver aid?
In a city, if the infrastructure is damaged by an earthquake or some other event, it can make the logistics of administering aid very challenging. But urban areas aren't the only ones that can create logistical nightmares. The current famine in the Horn of Africa illustrates logistical problems in the rural context. There nomadic families will often move from place to place with the hope of improving their situations and finding water and grasslands for their animals. But in places like Kenya this mobility makes them difficult to reach.
What they do have in Kenya is extensive cell phone coverage—two thirds of Kenyans have a cell phone, or at least a SIM card that they can plug into someone else's cell phone. For the past few years they have been using phone credits—basically air time—as a form of currency. If a family member needs money, [they can be sent] phone credits, which that family member can sell back to their local telecom provider for money or can trade at their local store for medicines, food or clothes.
What does this model mean for the future of humanitarian aid?
By using cellular technologies, we are able to avoid the [necessity of] establishing logistical pipelines to move relief supplies to these outlying populations. Establishing and maintaining these pipelines is expensive. We want to maximize the resources going to people and to limit the amount that goes into "transport and delivery costs."
In the summer of 2011 CHF started the PRESERV [Protecting and Restoring Economic Sustainability to Ensure Reduced Vulnerability] program to use this air-time transfer model to provide aid to these families living in remote areas. By writing down the names and SIM card numbers of those beneficiaries, CHF can then go back to places—Nairobi, for example—and work with mobile phone companies to transfer the assistance via the family's SIM card. This approach avoids expensive logistics costs and maximizes the amount of assistance that gets transferred to the family in need. [Mobile services provider] Safaricom offers one of the most commonly used services in Kenya. The transfer of units is accompanied by an SMS text that informs the beneficiary of how the program works. We think this type of assistance could even be extended to families living in places that are very insecure and inaccessible to aid organizations—places such as southern Afghanistan or Syria.