A month after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that claimed over 200,000 lives, I woke on a Saturday in late February to the news of another, even larger earthquake in the region. It was being reported as one of the biggest earthquakes ever.
For Save the Children’s emergencies team, as for much of the humanitarian community, the timing was inconvenient to say the least: Haiti, with its massive needs and vast international response had seen many agencies upscale dramatically and we were stretched to the limit. With almost 1,000 registered agencies there it has become one of the biggest emergency responses ever seen.
For a short few minutes, we asked ourselves if Chile, with its robust economy and infrastructure and strong government really needed us to intervene. But our internal position on such situations is clear, and we quickly put together an assessment team. We landed in Chile a couple of days later.
In the few days that followed, we did assess needs, but almost as quickly we triggered a Save the Children response we found unmet needs across all sectors. Hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, disrupted water supplies, schools and health facilities resigned to rubble. Children in particular would face many months before their lives began to resemble what they once new.
Despite the Chilean government’s reticence publically to call for international assistance, Save the Children intent to respond was welcomed at every level of government. They knew that, despite a certain pride in their initial response, there were huge gaps that they could not fill. These gaps were for different reasons, capacity, knowledge, experience, or sheer overload, but never from intent.
The gaps were also because the government had been largely taken at its word and left to handle the quake alone. Compared to the thousand or so agencies in Haiti, Chile had a small handful, a few extra UN staff and the odd high profile visit. On top of this, the level of input from Chilean civil society was also surprising light. Of the 80 children’s charities under the ACCION network, none were responding to the quake.
Save the Children, with experience drawn from earthquakes elsewhere has established a response that looks to meet some of these gaps not just by directly delivering aid and protecting rights but by working with government and local charities to do so.
Through a “humanitarian capacity team” we’re training government and our local partners on humanitarian minimum standards, advising on alternative approaches in sectors such as water provision and shelter, strengthening local coordination. And where the government really doesn’t have the means, we’re filling those gaps ourselves, with such things as water storage, shelter materials and temporary places for children to play.
It’s a different model of intervention – our budget will be hundreds of thousands, rather than the tens of millions in Haiti. But if we manage it right, we could have a huge impact, striving to maintain the duty of care of government, whilst we support, advocate, and only occasionally, substitute their role as a provider of last resort.