DIY Disaster Relief – local level can be faster, cheaper, more effective

Published by Tony Quinlan on

One of the things that struck me from the work we did the other year in Pakistan was that current aid and disaster relief often works top-down, with governments and NGOs putting in large programmes and amounts of funding at the national or, at best, regional level. Where control (or the illusion of it) is needed, it is the approach usually taken – predict the needs, assume local responses and plan accordingly.

I can see how that arose – and how tempting that is to run as a model. But I wonder whether there are better ways of providing aid – ones that rely on local, low-level networks, self-organising, specific needs and small-scale funding. The management of these becomes a whole different matter (and the suspicion must be understood that small-scale funds are more susceptible to corruption and disappearing into the ether).

And then today, comes a great article from Fast Company:

Twitter Enables DIY Disaster Relief in Indonesia | Fast Company

A group near the erupting Mount Merapi volcano has been particularly effective at using Twitter for relief. Not long ago, someone sent out a tweet announcing that there were packages of food a neighboring town. Within 10 minutes, over a dozen cars were ready to deliver it. “It was so fast I almost didn’t believe it,” Akhmad Nasir told Reuters. On another occasion, the group announced a need to prepare meals for 30,000 people; within four hours, it was done.

I particularly like the fact that, through local networks that have organised themselves through early-alert, fast-response communications (in this case through Twitter), aid is faster and more effective – and more efficient. (It’s this latter that seems to surprise those of the planning persuasion – letting go of control seems to fly in the face of efficiency…)

Yet, by adopting techniques for managing in a complex rather than complicated space, it’s not unusual to see this sort of result – instead of demanding a difficult, costly, system-wide approach, effective results can be achieved by small-scale interventions tailored to the specific circumstances.

It does, however, take a willingness to live with initial uncertainty while you wait to see what is needed. And that, in turn, takes trust and ability to cope with risk.