Haiti and Afghanistan: Managing two crises at the same time

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This article features an interview to Alberto Monguzzi, who works as Global Lead in the Business Continuity function of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The IFRC, established in 1919, is a global membership organization operating in the field of humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It is active in several fields, such as disaster preparedness and disaster response, climate risk, accessible education, equality and inclusion, and humanitarian diplomacy. To date, it employs over 20,000 people and it is active in more than 100 countries.

This article discusses the crisis management approach of the IFRC regarding two emergencies that took place at the very same time, namely the earthquake in Haiti on August 14 and the takeover of the Afghan capital Kabul by the Taliban on August 15.

What happened in Haiti

On August 14 Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.2, which caused over 2,000 casualties and injured over 12,000 people. Furthermore, survivors were left facing the large-scale effects of the disaster, which disrupted hundreds of thousands of livelihoods. The earthquake struck in what was already a very challenging environment for locals, with cases of extreme poverty, weak infrastructure and unstable institutions.

What happened in Kabul

In April 2021 US President Joe Biden announced a troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, after nearly two decades of presence in the country. As the US army started to withdraw, the Taliban – a terrorist organization of extremist Islamic views that controls several territories in Afghanistan – marched on Kabul and claimed the occupation of the capital and therefore the beginning of a new government. This happened on August 15.

What the IFRC did – From Alberto Monguzzi, Business Continuity Global Lead at the IFRC

It was an extremely tough weekend because both events happened over a couple of days. Regarding Haiti, the first issue was how to get our rescue and relief teams into the country, also based on our past experiences. To complicate matters further, travel from Europe through the United States was limited, vaccination rates are among the lowest in the world, and hospitals lacked the equipment to address most Covid cases among the poorest parts of the population. Due to the complexity of the situation, we decided to collaborate with external actors, such as our medical insurance provider, which helped with evacuation routes.

The point of entry into the country for everyone was Porto Principe, either via Paris or Santo Domingo; however, the actual disaster area was in the South-East, which entailed several transportation problems.  It took several hours by car to reach the people affected by the disaster, driving through roads controlled by gangs. Eventually, we resorted to our agreement with the Airbus foundation, a company that provides air transport services to deliver our support to the local communities.

The next day, the Taliban enter into Kabul, which meant we had to keep our local and international staff grounded and protected, communicating efficiently. To manage both crises at the same time, we created two crisis teams, one in charge of Haiti and one in charge of Afghanistan.

These teams were different in structure and skills since we tailored them to each specific situation. In the case of Haiti the response was rather standard for us, because natural disasters tend to happen quite frequently and we also had the experience from the previous earthquake in 2010. This is not to say that the emergency was not serious, far from that, but dealing with this type of situations represents our comfort zone as it is a familiar scenario to us.

Differently, in the case of Afghanistan the whole situation was very unstable and unpredictable. For instance, a major problem that we usually do not face was to get cashflow into the country to deliver humanitarian aid. Because we had to deal with a change of regime, we formed a team with experts in international relations and political strategy. This was also pivotal to be able to assist refugees, who might flee to nearby countries in the region with complex political and social frameworks, leading to frictions in terms of hospitality.

On the brighter side, we have a good foothold in Afghanistan, and we have been operating for a long time now also in Taliban-controlled areas. Our staff have training in international law and are strong on principles of international aid, which allows us to operate in the most extreme contexts.

This is part of the effort to familiarize ourselves with the territories where we operate, getting to know the area as much and as deeply as possible, getting to grips with its complexity and different facets. This learning and understanding exercise was also instrumental to managing the Haiti crisis, since we embedded in our processes the lessons we got from the previous emergency in 2010.

Interestingly, for us one major criticality is the protection of our own staff. Due to the nature of our operations, we work to assist others and that is our comfort zone; however, it all gets more difficult when we need to plan for the duty of care of our own staff, who are often in the frontline and need protection as well. This is also when disciplines and frameworks such as crisis management and business continuity management come in handy, since they help us look at the emergency in terms of both our external and internal stakeholders.

It is therefore pivotal that we manage our resources well, especially when two critical events happen at the same time. The Haiti team was more operational, focusing on business continuity to assess new developments such as a possible new hurricane that luckily did not occur.

In order to better understand atmospheric phenomena, we relied on forecasting centres that allowed us to understand quite precisely what was going to happen over the next 5 or 6 days.  This is part of our risk analysis and horizon scanning activities that occur within the business continuity management lifecycle.

Being prepared also consists of making sure we tailor the right approach to each specific context. We have established protocols that have been in place for years and are suitable to form the most appropriate crisis teams. For example, in Latin America we always have a pool of experts in the management of natural disasters that stays available during the hurricane season.

This also helps us decentralize decision-making, with local teams that are able to make their own decisions, while top management oversees the situation and steps in if needed. Speaking in general, in recent years there has been a decentralization of the decision-making process. For example, in Afghanistan our migration experts were key to making some decisions due to the nature of the crisis.

It is also important to have a cultural, sociological and legislative awareness of the area where you operate, to make sure that operations run smoothly. This is especially true for the supply chain, since some countries might have restrictions on specific materials – including medical equipment – for political, social, or cultural reasons.  Identifying these bottle necks is necessary and part of the risk assessment process. When doing this, we always try to put the needs of the person at the centre, visualizing what they need, how we can get it to them, and what might hinder these operations.

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