Why coordination in a crisis matters

26 May, 2016
27 April 2016, Chaichi village, Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Berdibekova Bazy, 52, is a widow and a mother of five, including a disabled daughter. She recalls the first days after the earthquake. “Our house got destroyed and for the first 10 days we lived in tents, which were very cold. But luckily the local authorities delivered these containers ahead of winter.”  Credit: OCHA/M.Sadvakassova
27 April 2016, Chaichi village, Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Berdibekova Bazy, 52, is a widow and a mother of five, including a disabled daughter. She recalls the first days after the earthquake. “Our house got destroyed and for the first 10 days we lived in tents, which were very cold. But luckily the local authorities delivered these containers ahead of winter.” Credit: OCHA/M.Sadvakassova
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We often hear the phrase “coordination saves lives” in humanitarian work. But what does coordination actually mean during a crisis? For OCHA, it means bringing various humanitarian partners together under one umbrella to organize relief and recovery operations. Effective coordination saves efforts, resources, time and, more importantly, lives.

In Kyrgyzstan, when a 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck the southern Osh Province in November 2015, strong coordination among partners enabled a timely response and avoided duplication of efforts. Since 2008, the Government’s Disaster Response Coordination Unit (DRCU), supported by OCHA, has steered the disaster preparedness and response efforts of UN agencies, NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in support of the Government. DRCU coordinated international organizations’ activities immediately after the earthquake by establishing a dialogue and flow of information between all actors, including Government agencies and donors.

Coordination matters

Jyldyz Toktorbaeva works with the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Kyrgyzstan. She recalls the response to a devastating 6.7-magnitude earthquake that occurred in Nura village, south Kyrgyzstan, in 2008, which was a few years before DRCU was established.

“We received information that people needed water, and we delivered it by helicopters, being unware of the clean water stream that was available near that village,” said Jyldyz. “We wasted time and resources. We could have used the helicopter for other purposes.”

Stressing the importance of coordination, she continues: “Individuals and organizations sent all types of in-kind items to the affected people, whether it was needed or not: chocolates, cheese, sweets, etc. Two countries sent, in total, 33,000 cans of pork meat, but the majority of the people living in the affected area are Muslim. If a coordination mechanism would have been in place, such things would not happen.”

Maksat Papayev is the Regional Coordinator for ACTED, a French NGO based in Osh. He said that coordination within the international humanitarian community had significantly improved since 2010 after the response to civil unrest in Kyrgyzstan. According to Maksat, partners have established close working relationships since then. He explains: “Coordination helps to avoid unnecessary actions. Last year, the South REACT team—a group of technical experts from each aid agency—conducted needs assessments and informed the Ministry of Emergency Situations and other actors about the need for winterized containers. They advised against the use of tents, which the Ministry was planning to deliver to the affected village, as they do not provide adequate shelter during winter. Thus, timely information helped to coordinate efforts.”

He emphasized the importance of training to be prepared for an effective response, and he highlighted the needs-assessment workshop that OCHA conducted for the humanitarian community in September 2015, just two months before the earthquake in Osh.

Svetlana Shermatova works with the National Red Crescent Society in Kyrgyzstan. She shared her experience of avoiding duplication of efforts during last year’s earthquake response and ensuring an equal distribution of relief items.

“There was a case where one family received 50 bags of flour and then had to sell them to cover their other needs,” she explained. “Meanwhile, other families did not receive anything. Luckily, we have immediately fixed this problem by establishing commissions for tracking distribution.”

Lessons learned

Jyldyz Toktorbaeva from the Ministry of Emergency Situations shared the lessons learned from last year’s earthquake response: “We have learned to divide people into priority groups—women, disabled people and children—thus covering the needs of the most vulnerable first. We also learned to stockpile extra relief items provided by various aid agencies and private donors into centralized stocks. We distributed them gradually instead of disseminating them all at once, as we previously did.”

Jyldyz reiterates that coordination was good, but she mentions some drawbacks, such as the lack of a frequent information flow between some agencies. However, she hopes that the new disaster law that will soon be adopted in Kyrgyzstan will establish clear procedures and assign functions and responsibilities to all Government agencies and other actors.

Cash distribution as default support 

In-kind assistance, such as food, warm clothes, blankets, heaters, hygiene kits and other relief items, was critically important to the people affected by the November earthquake in Osh. However, this assistance could not cover their most urgent needs. This is why the National Red Crescent Society provided disaster-affected people with a cash grant, which is one of the most effective ways to address their needs. Over 10 per cent of all affected households (300 most-vulnerable families) received 16,232 Kyrgyz soms (US$230).

“The earthquake-affected people already had food provided by a number of humanitarian agencies,” said Svetlana. “Therefore, they spent the cash on other things. The majority bought construction materials to rebuild houses, and others spent the money on essential non-food items.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a report for the World Humanitarian Summit, which takes place on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul, Turkey. In that report, he encourages the use of cash-based programming as the preferred and default method of support, where markets permit. Cash-based programming supports affected people by allowing them to purchase the goods and services they need most, but it also recovers and strengthens local economies.

Coordination to rebuild homes

Five months after the earthquake, many of the affected families in Osh are still struggling to recover and rebuild their houses and livelihoods. The earthquake damaged over 3,372 houses and left 431 families homeless. 

Given the limited local resources, the special commission identified the most vulnerable families to assist and gave them a subsidy of 200,000 Kyrgyz soms ($2,900). However, according to the affected people, this amount would not be enough to buy construction materials.

In addition, ACTED, with support from the Swiss Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, is retrofitting 125 houses (12 per cent of all houses that need to be rebuilt). Beneficiaries have also received construction materials and technical guidelines on how to build houses according to seismic standards.

But despite this much-needed assistance, the worst-affected families in Osh still need continued support from international organizations and donors.

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