World Humanitarian Day 2021 – time for sustainable aid?

19 August 2021

with Elizabeth Riley

Executive Director, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Barbados

To mark World Humanitarian Day 2021‘s theme of the human cost of the climate crisis CHS Alliance revisit Elizabeth Riley’s thought piece from the 2020 Humanitarian Accountability Report on integrating environmental concerns into humanitarian action. The climate emergency is wreaking havoc across the world at a scale that the humanitarian community and people at the front lines cannot manage. Humanitarian responders must also consider their impact, as part of their Commitments made to people affected by crisis under the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality & Accountability.

ER: I’m an environmentalist at heart and by training, so it’s encouraging to see that Commitment 9 on responsible management of resources is being met the second best by CHS verified organisations. I think this speaks to how many aid organisations have been working with partners to better meet the needs of crisis-affected people.

Analysis of Commitment 9 subcategory scoring is revealing. Unsurprisingly, areas often emphasised in humanitarian responses – monitoring and reporting expenditure against budgets – scored the highest. However actions on considering the impact of using local and natural resources on the environment scored the lowest, which demonstrates that this area requires greater attention.

Environmental sustainability is one of the five resilience pillars which informs the work of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). These pillars have high-level policy support as they have been adopted by the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community within the “Caribbean Pathway for Disaster Resilience in CARICOM”. Yet the low score on the environmental impact of using local resources suggests that even with the issue clearly identified, there’s still room for better integration of environmental concerns into humanitarian action.

A good place to start is managing response-generated waste. The Covid-19 pandemic is generating significant waste globally. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) protocols require not just health practitioners, but all essential workers to frequently change their PPE. This creates a significant number of used gowns, gloves and more, over a sustained period of time. This needs to be addressed.There are some specialised waste management humanitarian organisations, but the issue is not mainstreamed within aid organisations across the board. This is of special importance in the Small Island Developing States context, where we have limited land space and fewer disposal options.

To tackle the impact of aid on local environments we also must consider aid that is unsuitable and unsolicited. Aid organisations may make contributions with the best intentions, but that does not mean they’re consistent with the country’s needs. We saw a deluge of items including clothing and shoes after hurricanes Maria in Dominica and Dorian in the Bahamas. Unnecessary or unusable aid poses a serious relief management and environmental challenge for local responders and authorities. They also divert attention into addressing secondary effects of a disaster, when energy is better spent elsewhere.

“Looking to the future, we have an opportunity to better integrate environmental concerns into humanitarian action. For this we need better matching of the supplies with actual needs.”

We also need humanitarian organisations to use innovative technology and materials. Could we use more recyclable materials?

Finally, cash programming allows crisis-affected people the power of choice. It gives people the option to buy what they need. Cash can benefit smaller, local producers, while vouchers tend to be linked to use in formal businesses. With cash you can buy what you need from a farmer down the road. It just makes sense.

Here in the Caribbean, we’re continuing the conversation on these vital environmental concerns. Going forward, I want to see them strongly promoted at policy and action levels.

Read more about Commitment 9 on responsible management of resources in the Humanitarian Accountability Report 2020, including verification scores, analysis and recommendations for change.