Amongst the challenges of aid workers

Unni Krishnan spent hours on the tarmac in Delhi Sunday afternoon before he learned his flight would be cancelled because of a massive aftershock in Kathmandu. While the 49-year-old Canadian aid worker managed to catch a different flight to the earthquake-shattered capital of Nepal the following morning, several of his colleagues remain stranded at airports, waiting for a seat on a flight they hoped would be able to land.

One colleague’s plane touched down twice in Kathmandu before taking off again. “They need to find a balancing act between materials and people, because both are needed for the circumstances,” said Mr. Krishnan, who is Plan International’s head of disaster response and preparedness.

That backlog at the airport is one of many challenges for aid workers who are struggling to reach those most in need of help after a devastating earthquake shook the South Asian country on Saturday, killing more than 5,000 people. People in Nepal described chaotic scenes on Monday as thousands fled the capital and officials struggled to move supplies from the country’s main airport to those left homeless by the earthquake.

Ottawa has promised $5-million in aid to Nepal and says it will match donations from individual Canadians over a one-month period. The federal government also sent an assessment group from the military’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, along with a search-and-rescue team and medical personnel. And Canadian aid agencies are moving into action, sending humanitarian workers and supplies to the damaged country of 31 million.

Francois Audet, a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal who has studied the international response to humanitarian disasters, said co-ordination among agencies and with local officials is always a challenge after a major event such as an earthquake. Those challenges can be amplified, he said, if aid organizations begin competing for donations and facing pressures to demonstrate that they are achieving results.

Stephen Cornish, executive director for Médecins sans frontières Canada (MSF), said some of the biggest challenges in co-ordinating aid typically arise in the weeks after a disaster occurs. That’s because the organizations that arrive first – and those already working in a country – are more experienced at working with others and tend to have better local contacts.

Several Canadian aid agencies said the situation has improved since the introduction of the “cluster” system after the 2004 tsunamis. That system groups aid organizations into specific “clusters” of humanitarian aid – such as shelter and health – to ensure that the assistance being provided is reaching those who need it, and different groups’ efforts aren’t overlapping.

[The Globe and Mail]

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