This morning Patrick, Jaro, Rob, Anahi and Helena put up a post on the Standby Task Force blog, “Why We need a Disaster Response 2.1 report” where they pointed out a number of errors and issues with the DR 2.0 report I’d mentioned last week. Their corrections are useful, and, together with Gisli’s response to their response (my head already hurts), they raise a number of themes that remain at the heart of creating more effective crisis situational awareness and communications systems; for international humanitarian actors, for governments, and ultimately for the often neglected – in this regard at least – people affected by disasters.
As one of the people involved in the inception of the report, and (depending on how you view it) one of the editors, as well as someone quoted in it, I’ve also got much to say. Probably the most important thing is that this kind of conversation is exactly what I had hoped would happen when we set out on the journey of working with John Crowley and the team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to do the research and write the report. Well, I must admit that I wish things weren’t so rushed towards the end of the production cycle, and that we’d had more time for consultation and community review before publication. I wish we’d also had more time to talk to humanitarian actors in the field, and to donors and to bring in people in countries affected by disasters to offer their inputs and views: for example the team from the University of Yogyakarta who setup a Crisis Wiki immediately after the 2005 earthquake, or the team behind the Tsunami, Katrina and Flu wikis, or the Red Cross team who worked with Digicell in Haiti to prepare for the hurricane season in 2010, or many of the folks that the SBTF team rightly points out made contributions who weren’t included. I wish we could continually update it with the work that Crisis Commons and the Open Streetmap Team are doing in Japan, or have a real discussion on the Ushahidi Haiti Evaluation, or the work that the Standby Task Force did with UNOCHA on the Libya Crisis map. I could go on. Ultimately a typeset report is a stake in the sand, an opinion put into PDF and print. And the place to have this discussion is here, on the net, and in person, over beers or your non-alcoholic beverage of choice. Most likely at the Crisis Mapper Conference in Geneva later this year, if not before.
But basically I wanted to say thanks to the highly committed and awesome SBTF folks for engaging so publicly, and adding depth to both the report and, I hope, to the continued conversation.
On their detailed points: there’s a lot to say, but here I want to comment on the use of the term Volunteer and Technical Community (V&TC). As (I think) the creator of the damned phrase, it was a compromise to get us away from VTC (which was in common use in the many of the 2010 reports and discussions). Amongst those who contributed to the report, either in inception or during research and editing, there was a real struggle to come up with a term for those actors who were not “the traditional humanitarian community” in all their diversity of structures, engagement and longevity.
So we’ve fallen into the trap of categorization: by using a term to speak of “the other”, in contrast to an (admittedly vague) “formal humanitarian” group we surface the artifacts of in-group/out-of group sociology, particularly “illusory correlation” where we perceive more shared interests and alignment that really exists. It’s what we also get when we talk about race, or a bunch of other social-affect categories no matter how hard we try to do otherwise.
So to step out of the abstract: yes, the use of a term like V&TC conflates a lot of underlying differences, and there are pathologies that result from it. Because there is an IASC taskforce with a reasonably stable membership (even though it is formally open), the apparent relevance of new actors and capabilities in the Haiti response – together with the work of longstanding groups like Sahana and MapAction – caused us all to grasp on to terms, and ask for consistent interfaces. This is typical of people’s responses during crises, when we suffer from overload, and we fall back on the familiar, the easy, and on bonds of trust.
Ironically I keep being reminded in my head of many similar conversations I’ve had with “The Military” over the years: when I was doing CMCOORD trainings, or when working in the field: a Major, or a Captain pleads “can you please just give me an interface we can work with, even you, rather than 100 different NGOs all asking for their own thing?” They ask for a reason why things aren’t “just more organized”, and I’ve struggled as best I can to explain why that’s not possible, and to also provide an interface as best we can. It’s why coordination structures exist, and why I was so glad to see these conversations evolving last year at the Crisis Congress and particularly at the Crisis Mappers Conference. Them, us, we, are in this together.
Disclaimer: I should, of course, note that these opinions are mine, and not necessarily those of my current or past employers.
Update: Apr 7 2011. Interestingly the recently released and related World Bank GFDRR labs report uses the term “Volunteer Technical Communities”.