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A Small Group Dreams Big
Published on 1 February 2006
It started with a question: “What would greater collaboration on emergency work look like?” Gathered around a conference table, emergency directors representing seven relief and development agencies tried to find answers when they met in March 2003. The possibilities were immense. If they coordinated their emergency efforts, they could do joint advocacy work. Together they could develop tools. They could find common solutions to issues like staff development, knowledge sharing, and IT. “It was exciting to see the commonality of participating agency thinking around the agency 'Misery List' we developed and agreement around our common 'Pain Points,'” recalled Mark Janz of World Vision. “There was an excitement that the large NGOs really wanted to work together on common areas of concern.
At the same, time there was some apprehension that the momentum would continue beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm: “It was exciting, and full of promise, but we all knew well that the proof of the utility would be in our capacity to deliver,” said Nick Roseveare of Oxfam. “I was very apprehensive that this optimistic initiative would not simply sink below the waves of the numerous good intentions and feel-good rhetoric with which we are all familiar in sector meetings, but that we should really push forwards on things that we could practically do together.”
From a brainstorming session that canvassed topics as varied as civil military relations in emergencies, staff development, strategies for addressing forgotten emergencies, HIV/AIDS and emergencies, and fundraising, three were distilled – staff development, accountability, and donor engagement/fundraising. However, at a subsequent meeting in May 2004, the directors decided to hire a consultant to assess the gaps in the agencies’ emergency response capacities in a more systematic fashion and make recommendations as to how to address them.
The consultant’s report detailed four problem areas where collaboration would yield the greatest benefits: staff capacity, accountability and impact measurement, risk reduction in communities, and information communication technology. Once these had been identified and agreed upon, it took several months for the proposal writing group to further flesh these out. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to provide $5.18 million over a two-year period for the first three areas, or initiatives. These initiatives would comprise the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB). Later in the year, Microsoft Corporation contributed $1 million to fund the fourth initiative on information communication technology as part of the ECB.
The project start date was slated for January 2005. Then, on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. The tsunami pushed back the project’s launch date to March. However, it did provide an opportunity for the seven agencies to do a joint after-action review and later a multi-agency evaluation of the response by CARE, Oxfam and World Vision. The afteraction review illustrated the value of a peer group. “At the after-action review, people shared a lot of internal failures and successes, whereas before, they wouldn’t be so open,” said Ahuma Adoadji of CARE.
Today, the ECB has an extended membership of approximately ninety people, most of whom work part time for the project.
- A metrics study that measures how well agencies are performing in the area of emergency staffing. This exercise will yield a set of performance indicators for tracking progress against staffing objectives.
- Exchange visits between the human resources staff at the seven agencies from both the field and headquarters offices that have yielded best practices and useful networking relationships. A selection of these best practices will be published shortly.
- A study, executed by People in Aid, of the factors affecting staff loyalty and retention.
- A multi-agency evaluation of the Niger food crisis response, building on the earlier multi-agency tsunami response evaluation. Findings about the process and benefits of conducting multiagency evaluations will be published.
- A draft of a “how-to” guide on accountability and the measuring of results, incorporating case studies of accountability and monitoring and evaluation in practice.
- Reviews of disaster preparedness models and case studies in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Indonesia.
- An assessment of information and technology requirements in emergencies through interviews with both programming and IT staff at the seven agencies and two case studies in the field. The assessment will be completed in March, followed by a forum in April to discuss the findings.
How innovative is the IWG approach? “There has been collaboration at the field level, but these tended to be collaboration at coordination meetings to share plans and information,” said Ahuma. Other sectoral coalitions do exist, for example, the CORE and Hope for African Children initiatives, uniting INGOs and grass roots organizations on the fight against HIV/ AIDS, and the C-SAFE consortium, addressing food insecurity in southern Africa. However, the IWG part-nerhip is the first of its kind to unite the emergency departments of large humanitarian agencies at the headquarters level through collaborative activities both at headquarters and in the field.
A year into the ECB project’s official, if not actual, start date of January 2005, the joys and pains of working in a consortium are very apparent. “The level of collaboration has been very strong and most agencies feel very positive about this,” said Mark, “… however these collaborative engagements take more than will, and include take more than will, and include
people and thinking power…who are already 150% engaged with current responsibilities. More momentum could be generated if there were more resources for additional people to lead collaborative learning efforts and research and development,” he said.
“Momentum is difficult to maintain,” Nick Roseveare added, “but enormous personal trust and reliance has built up among members of the [IWG], and this is critical if progress on a small number of strategic fronts is to be made. It is [also] important for [the consortium] to remain relatively small for it to be effective, and I believe that the majority of its actions - if we are really to be different - must be for the wider benefit of the sector – rather than for ourselves.”
ECB has mountains to move, tasked as it is with fostering change not only within seven agencies but within the broader humanitarian sector. “When you’re initiating change, if you want to be successful, you need to constantly get buy-in from all levels in the organization,” said Ahuma. “We also need to be able to share the lessons from this and get the buy-in from others within the sector that this is a better way of doing business” However, no one seems to doubt the value of a collaborative effort in moving mountains. “Coalitions are very enriching and very encouraging,” said Ahuma. “You can be very lonely in your corner. It was encouraging that some of the problems we had, they had also,” he added. The search for solutions, ECB members hope, is better undertaken together
By Malaika Wright, ECB Project Staff
30 October 2012: The ECB Project’s National Staff Development Program, ‘ENHAnce,’ preparing for Simulations and Learning Events
The ENHAnce (Expanding National Humanitarian Ability) program aims to improve the speed and quality of emergency response through improved recruitment, retention, development and deployment of skilled and experienced emergency staff. Read more
4 October 2012: ECB Accountability and Impact Measurement Standing Team to hold learning workshop in Nepal
Key stakeholders of the ECB Accountability and Impact Measurement (AIM) Standing Team are to take part in a learning workshop from the 3rd to the 5th of December in Nepal. Read more
The ECB Project today launches its new learning resource on consortia building aimed at field-based humanitarian and emergency staff. Read more