Is collaboration the key to more effective surge?

March 13, 2015

Posted by in Blog.

A key tenet of the Start Network’s vision is that humanitarian agencies can achieve more through collaboration than by working alone. This is an idea that has been fundamental in the design of our Start Build portfolio – a collection of projects aimed at strengthening the capacity of civil society. Last week, the Transforming Surge Capacity project, part of the DFID Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP), held its inception workshop in Bangkok, to plan how this collaboration will work in practice.

Humanitarian agencies all have their own processes to scale up and deploy resources rapidly in a crisis. Transforming Surge Capacity is a project led by ActionAid to pilot collaborative new approaches to surge, to enable humanitarian agencies to share good practices and resources for more effective response. This is something that has never been done before, and with 11 members and 2 technical partners, this project represents the largest consortium within the DEPP portfolio. Central also to the Start Build philosophy is the idea of strengthening local capacity to respond to and prepare for disasters, to enable faster and more appropriate assistance. For Transforming Surge Capacity, this idea translates as a move away from the traditional model, where trained staff from INGO headquarters are flown in, often from Europe and North America to a disaster zone, toward a more regionalised or localised systematic approach to surge, which would include the best use of international surge. Less duplication and wastage; effective knowledge sharing and learning; appropriate response delivered by staff who are familiar with the local context: collaborative and localised surge may seem like a no brainer. But the inception workshop revealed a number of important issues that will need careful consideration if the project is to make this vision a reality.

Can we move beyond the circle of trust?

The workshop brought together project staff, Start Network and donor representatives, and external stakeholders working on surge such as the UN, OFDA (Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance), and academic institutions. External stakeholders were keen to emphasise how surge rosters are currently composed of ‘trustworthy’ individuals – people who the agency knows they can count on to deliver during a crisis. The danger with shared or global rosters, they warned, would be in how to build trust quickly between staff and agencies that did not have prior knowledge of each other.


The week combined debate with a number of practical exercises to plan out the launch

But at the same time they acknowledged how many people there are who want to get involved in emergency response. The issue comes down to quality, and ensuring deployable staff have been trained to meet a certain standard. Is this an insurmountable tension, or one that agencies could work around by revising their ‘business as usual’ approach to surge? Is there a fast, reliable and rigorous approach to surge that would enable agencies to deploy high quality staff in a crisis, beyond their traditional ‘circle of trust’? 

A single shared roster might not be the answer

As part of this project agencies will be piloting collaborative approaches to surge rosters. As the conversations went on, it was clear that this shouldn’t be  for a single shared roster of staff – through which participating agencies could draw from each others’ talent pools to deploy staff in an emergency. HR staff from partner agencies, who will play an instrumental role in this project, were also keen to point out how difficult it is to manage a roster of staff even for a single agency. Keeping information up to date; ensuring fair rotation and staff wellbeing; managing in-fighting over reputable individuals: all of these challenges suggest a vast shared roster could pose more issues than it will solve.

At the same time, rosters are and will continue to be one of the primary tools through which agencies surge staff in a crisis, so this project will need to look at how to share good practice to ensure they are used as effectively as possible and attempt to work together to overcome some of the common challenges faced by all agencies in this area. Possible suggestions for the project included  piloting smaller surge rosters or registers that focus on a specific technical area that different agencies could access – e.g. when an agency doesn’t have the funds to manage a specific roster of Psychosocial specialists by itself. There was also a request for the project to map what existing rosters exist already, and to explore possible connections between them for agencies. Participants also suggested  setting up standing agreements between participating agencies to ask for and receive experts for deployment. In order to be successful, agencies will require stronger and more coordinated communications.

In fact, strong communications will be pivotal in the delivery of this project.

Of course, strong and clear lines of communication will be needed to ensure effective coordination and to share knowledge and resources. But at its core, this project is about putting into practice a key sentiment from the Start Network’s Declaration of Intent, which states: “It’s not always our place to deliver the assistance that’s needed. But we have the courage to hand over this responsibility to those that can do the best job.” But handing over responsibility could have huge reputational implications if careful consideration is not given to the accompanying messaging. How will NGOs manage their donor and supporters’ expectations around their role in an emergency? There will need to be organisation-wide plans to communicate this new way of working, to help others see that just because an INGO isn’t always sending staff to the front line of a crisis, this doesn’t mean that they’re not contributing to a wider relief effort.

Transforming Surge Capacity doesn’t expect or even aim to solve all of these issues. It has been transparent from the beginning in its intent to deliver a variety of experimental pilots to explore different approaches. We do not know that at the end of this three year project whether the humanitarian sector will be delivering surge capacity in a seamless, cohesive and self-organising way or not. But we will have a wealth of knowledge and a strong network of relationships to roll out the successful pilots – which will be a huge step towards achieving this vision.


Participants shared ideas on effective collaboration

Photos: Allan Vera, Christian Aid Philippines, and Tegan Rogers, Start Network

Visit the Start Network Facebook page for more photos from the week


Tagged: , , , , ,

Join the conversation

Leave a Reply