When Responding to Disasters Cash is King and Cool Heads Top Big Hearts

When Responding to Disasters Cash is King and Cool Heads Top Big Hearts

Airlink President and CEO Steve Smith and Director of Humanitarian Programs Stephanie Steege explain why ‘cash is king’ when responding to disasters and provide insight into humanitarian missions and how good intensions, bad ideas and misunderstood logistical challenges impact disaster responses. 

It may shock you to learn this, but 60 percent of the goods that arrive during emergencies are not needed or appropriate for the recovery or the region. And when those goods do arrive, they can have a significant, negative impact on the relief effort. In 2015 post-Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, for example, some 18 containers of unsolicited donations of goods were left at Port Vila, costing the local government $1.5M in storage, handling, and destruction costs

As the full impact of Hurricane Ida and the recent earthquake in Hait becomes clear and we gear up responses to both, it is worth exploring and unpacking what gives rise to that 60 percent figure.

There are two forces at work that ultimately affect how successful a humanitarian response to a disaster is. The first is a lack of clarity about the importance of logistics post-disaster. The second is the ways that the public tries to help—clothing and canned food donations, or collection drives (as remarkable and inspiring as it can be). These two forces frequently culminate in the “second disaster,” in which unsolicited and unneeded goods overwhelm disaster areas, harming local economies and making it harder for expert organizations to deliver aid.

Every response starts with getting people and supplies to the disaster area, yet it is a discipline often overlooked in nonprofit disaster planning, as much of the focus goes to the provision of aid once it gets there. But, supply chain activities account for 60-80% of all humanitarian funding spent – although you’ll find very few if any funding streams supporting disaster response transport and logistics. 

For context consider this: the total global budget for humanitarian aid reached $27.3 billion US in 2017. Experts suggest that optimizing the supply chain by pooling logistics resources in the sector—through enacting more private sector and interagency partnerships—could have resulted in a 7% savings – equal to $1.1-1.5 billion

Each dollar invested in preparedness, as a part of disaster risk management, could save six dollars in emergency response costs—and logistics is part of this. For example, investing in better cold chain infrastructure in areas prone to health crises; pre-planned warehousing in known disaster-prone zones like the Caribbean; and investment in a resilient and flexible logistics sector like the Get Airports Ready for Disaster (GARD) program run by DHL and UN Development Programme are steps that NGOs, governments, and the private sector can and should be taking towards better disaster preparedness. Understanding, planning, prepositioning, and, above all, interagency partnerships could make a huge difference. 

This brings up the second issue we referenced, how the public decides to give, and what they give.  

You would need a heart of steel to be unmoved watching the tragic events unfolding in Haiti, which experienced a 7.2-magnitude earthquake just one week ago impacting the lives of 1.2 million people —although events in Afghanistan have all but drowned out any mention of it in the news.  

There is an understandable impulse to want to do something to help mitigate human misery—and that is one of the qualities that make us humans such remarkable creatures. People give all manner of goods when they hear of a disaster unfolding, and it’s commendable but not always sensible or practical. In past disasters, people have sent chandeliers and even used teabags. All of this inventory has to be managed, opened, checked, stored, and ultimately most of it destroyed. All of this is profoundly inefficient and counterproductive. The USAID Center for International Disaster Information has even created a campaign to provide comprehensive guidance on how to give effectively

In reality, when it comes to disaster response ‘cash is king.’ And if you can give monthly, that is the best of all options.  Sustained support from donors year-round helps nonprofits launch more planned and predictable programs—as game-changing as large, disaster-timed donations can be, they often come days and weeks after an emergency. Having a dependable income stream around which nonprofits can plan would allow them to engage more heavily in disaster preparedness activities. 

Disaster response is complex, and the willingness of people to help strangers in the aftermath of human tragedy is one of the things that makes our species so remarkable. But more thorough planning, a better understanding of logistics, and sustained funding for nonprofit responding organizations will see a step-change improvement in how we meet the needs of communities in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters. 

Picture of Steven J. Smith

Steven J. Smith

Steven J. Smith is president and CEO of Airlink. Under Steve’s leadership, Airlink’s revenue and impact has grown almost tenfold .

Picture of Stephanie Steege

Stephanie Steege

Stephanie Steege is Director of Humanitarian Programs at Airlink, leading operations connecting nonprofit partners and the aviation sector to deliver disaster responders and supplies in the wake of humanitarian crises worldwide.

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