Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Making disaster relief efficient PART II: Formulating a solution

Put the right pieces together to make a more efficient relief operation (source: Emin Sinanyan)

Following up on Part I, I've been formulating a solution to Sue's (i've decided to name her that) predicament; and that of international agencies stuck in an inefficiency rut. Here's what I have so far:

To reformulate, here's the problem: Sue (a water-sanitation engineer) and other skilled workers like her want to work or volunteer for organizations using their necessary skills, rather than give money. And the agencies' poor human resource management and lack of coordination keeps outstanding workers like Sue out of their system. To make matters worse, relief isn't being as efficient as it could. How do you help make relief operations more efficient??

Disaster Relief is like a puzzle. There are different holes in your puzzle that need to be filled. Find out the right pieces for those holes in an organized manner and you'll have an efficient, complete operation in progress.

That's how relief operations and aid work need to be approached. The relief operation is like the puzzle, with parts of it already filled in (defined by relief work already in progress and the people in need), with odd holes that still need filling. These holes (aid) can be classified into three distinct shapes:
  • Materials/Supplies (Food, blood, search lights, helicopter, you name it)
  • Money (self explanatory...$$$)
  • Skills/Knowledge/Info (like Sue, logisticians, doctors, construction workers, etc)
You need all of these to make a complete puzzle, and relief agencies need to understand that and organize their needs accordingly.

Not everyone can give money, and some others are better at donating supplies or skills than money (eg. Sue). In fact most agencies get a better deal in the process. For example, most agencies wouldn't be able to afford Sue. She bills out at $250-300 an hour. Instead, with Sue volunteering for two weeks, they get $24,000 worth for free, rather than the $200 she ends up donating to them.

Essentially, there needs to be a common space where agencies can lay out their needs broken down in this manner, along with a listing of the size of their needs (eg. water/sanitation engineer for 9 weeks, or 100 boxes of nails, or $10,000 for buying plane tickets); and volunteers/potential employees can decide/select which of those needs they can fulfill.

One of the closest platforms I have come across is VolunteerMatch. In a neat, user-friendly interface, volunteers and agencies can find each other in an efficient manner. It is a win-win situation, that I've personally used many times. I find an opportunity I like that allows me to work in a field I like, in the timeframe I want. Essentially, i end up happy; and the organization gets good, skilled labor for a position they desperately need filled at no cost.

Now think about expanding the concept of VolunteerMatch beyond the boundaries of the United States, to include all international agencies. Bring in organizations like Transparency International and Charity Navigator, to rate the efficiency/transparency of these organizations. Then let people decide how and in what manner they want to invest in which agency - money, time, and/or materials. Sue, for example, might want to volunteer full-time for a small International Rescue Committee (IRC) operation as a water/sanitation engineer in Burma, for two weeks (since she has to return back to work)...and maybe she can find a friend at work to take over her shift once she leaves. Maybe she can even get her company to sponsor one person's work for the cycle of the operation with IRC. Maybe Sue might even leave her job and want to work full-time on this operation for the duration of the mission. But she can make up her mind one day and fly out the next to be on an operation she can actually help with. This is what informational efficiency can do for disaster relief.

This is entirely possible if the information is up there for people to see, essentially giving the power of decision to the person making the most investment. This is how works, and this is why it is so successful.

As I look at the Burmese disaster, I personally know of professionals - doctors, nurses, engineers, logisticians, construction workers, who would fly out to Burma to volunteer, if they knew for sure that they would be put to work immediately, in an efficient manner, for the duration they can afford. But that's not the way things are happening right now. There is so much competition between the agencies, there are turf wars, and money being lost in the process, and all against the backdrop of human tragedy. It is SO unnecessarily inefficient.

I even think of Katrina's aftermath in 2008. Its not that America has forgotten about New Orleans. They just don't know how to help anymore. They've done what they were told to do - give money. And yet, the problem is still there. And they are frustrated that having already done the best they could (i.e. donate as much money as they could), that the impact hasn't happened. People still struggling against the aftermath of the disaster are mad at the rest of America, and honestly its not their fault.

Imagine the reverse scenario, where Americans with the right skills, tools and supplies, and money showed up and worked together to build up the city...what a different scenario that would be! That's what I'm aiming for with this post. We've got to make disaster relief more efficient...

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