On 6 January 2015, I took part in an important discussion at Europe House in London. The meeting was convened by Muslim Charities Foundation , in partnership with the African Foundation For Development and the World Humanitarian summit. The meeting sought to solicit views on the role of the Diaspora in Humanitarian Assistance ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.
I was struck by a series of seemingly rhetorical and yet profound questions from the first panel of speakers.
I will list some here;
- Is humanitarian aid too westernised?
- How should humanitarian aid be framed?
- What will the humanitarian movement look like in twenty years?
- The nature of need and conflict is changing across the world. Consequently the nature of vulnerable people has changed too. How will we respond to this changing need with increasingly limited resources?
- The nature of interested parties is changing, causing us to ask the question, who is the humanitarian? Is it the Army, Business/Private sector or International banks?
- How will we apply developments in technology to respond to the ever-changing nature of humanitarian crises?
- Why is international development not linked to humanitarian crises?
- We have often focused on crises within borders and yet there is a rise in cross border crises. Are we ready for this change?
- What is the role of development policy?
- These questions need to be answered as they have implications for those involved in humanitarian assistance
Some of these questions were woven into the day’s deliberations but our goal for the day was to explore the role of the diaspora in humanitarian assistance.
For this task we had to answer a series of questions that uncovered some hard truths. In the first instance we were invited to consider whether there is a role for the Diaspora in humanitarian assistance and if so what that is. A related question asked us to consider what qualifies the diaspora to provide humanitarian assistance.
The consensus was that in times of crisis the Diaspora can bridge the information gap between donors and communities in crisis. This is because most still have links with heritage communities and are able to get accurate and up to date information from relatives. This information is often from areas that International Non Government Organisations and journalists cannot get to.
In addition that Diaspora networks both in heritage and host communities, can aid humanitarian assistance. I have been involved in two initiatives such as this; #TWEEPSHELPBUDUDDA– this was a social media campaign by Ugandan youth in response to landslides in Eastern Uganda. I helped raise money here in the UK to aid those young people’s efforts
And most recently I’ve been involved in the LunchBoxGift initiative. Through this initiative, London based Memunah Janneh has worked with her family and friends in Sierra Leone to provide hot meals to patients and staff in Ebola treatment centres in Sierra Leone. I have provided a structure within which Memuna and her team can work and raise money.
The related question as to what qualifies the Diaspora to provide humanitarian assistance required us to consider a couple of pertinent issues, the first being that communities evolve and sometimes in subtle but important ways and so do those who cease to be part of those communities. It is therefore feasible that just like solutions suggested by donors and international aid organisations, Diaspora solutions for communities in crisis maybe inappropriate.
A second and related point, considers whether the Diaspora are part of the problem in particular with respect to crises that arise out of armed conflict. By its nature, humanitarian assistance requires those providing it to remain neutral. The question that arises for the Diaspora is whether we are capable of being neutral in such circumstances or would political affiliations, ethnic, ideology and or religious affiliations get in the way?
Throughout the discussions it became apparent that the nature of crises and interested parties is evolving and that solutions will require a huge dollop of innovate thinking to come up with new approaches and ideas.
A question for consideration here was, what is meant by innovation and whether there is time and scope for innovation in times of crisis.
A great example on the day was Memuna’s Lunchbox Gift mentioned above. In most African countries, when you are in hospital, your family brings you food. What do you do when you are quarantined because of Ebola?
As we reflected on the response to the Ebola crisis, we wondered whether the Diaspora could have done more. We also wondered whether there is a role for the Diaspora inside international humanitarian aid organisations as they tend to take the lead in such circumstances?
Challenges for Diaspora
Time and time again participants complained about aid agencies inability to write small cheques, which leave small and medium Diaspora organisations unable to access available funding.
Another but less discussed challenge is one I alluded to earlier, Credibility. I would like to illustrate this by using Memuna’s example.
Given the way Ebola is spread, Memuna has had to source specialist cardboard food boxes and bamboo spoons for packaging patient meals from overseas. The reason behind this was to ensure that all packaging that goes into Ebola treatment centres could be safely incinerated after use.
But she encountered problems in the supply chain. The recent international transportation restrictions that have come out of the Ebola crisis, air and sea freight services meant that she had to compete with big aid agencies for cargo space. These big agencies were prioritised for space of the few cargo planes allowed in, with the implication that the food containers were at sea for 6 weeks
Notwithstanding the fact, that by sourcing food containers from the UK she is contributing to jobs here in the UK, as an unknown in the industry she lacked the credibility of Oxfam or Save the Children, that would have enabled her to access the limited space on cargo planes.
The European Union and the Diaspora
I am not a Euro Skeptic, but as I listened to the speeches from the second panel, I couldn’t help but wonder why a European Union Development Policy is needed.
I asked Linda McAvan, the MEP that sits on the European Union’s Development Committee whether Institutions such as the EU see the Diaspora as a resource that could be put to use in times of crisis. I didn’t get a straight answer to this question nor an explanation as to how the Diaspora could link into the EU’s humanitarian assistance work.
I would really like to hear your views on this, so please leave a comment below or take a few minutes to complete my Survey