Right now, thousands are fleeing the war in Ukraine, among them cancer patients, including patients with Melanoma. Many of us are wondering how to help. And we know only too well from our activities in patient advocacy that good intentions alone are not enough- to make a real difference, it takes know-how and strategy.
Our network is about sharing knowledge and expertise. We are lucky that our colleague Anne Wispler from the German Hautkrebs Netzwerk in her ‘other life’ has actually been working as Online Editor at the German Red Cross headquarters since 2014.
We asked Anne what she thinks we should understand about humanitarian aid in general- and any learnings she could share with us.
In Anne’s words:
Organised and tested approach
Being the biggest humanitarian organisation in the world, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a very organised approach which some may find bureaucratic. But I guess we learned from past mistakes.
First of all, in bigger disasters, the national society of the country affected needs to officially call for help. The idea is that every national society is usually prepared and staffed and stocked with the necessary items.
Only then, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement activates its network and sends specifically ordered relief items, food, water treatment equipment and personnel, for example. These items, like whole "hospitals in a box", are standardised and optimised, based on the experience from earlier catastrophes somewhere else.
This is what makes governments rely on this type of humanitarian aid. And during wars, we are even auxiliaries of our governments under the Geneva conventions.
Scale and logistics matter- and you don't want to make problems worse
At our MPNE workshop in February, we talked a lot about scaling up things, so they may have a broader impact. And with 40 million Ukrainians under attack, that is what you have to do if you want to be really effective. You don't need just one cargo plane or one shipment of medicines, you need plenty and that means good logistics all the way.
And that is the dilemma with well-meant small initiatives. It is very human to pack a van with boxes of clothes, diapers, medicine, cans of food and drive to Ukraine or its border yourself. But how can you make sure the help reaches the right people at the right time and place, the van doesn't get stuck or robbed somewhere, and the medicine isn't too old? And also, these cars and people use up space on the roads, they need fuel and food themselves, they may get into heavy fighting and then you have to rescue them, too - making the situation worse, not better.
Some learnings from a recent experience, the flooding in Germany last summer
Help has to arrive in the right form
From the catastrophic flooding last summer in Germany, in which we lost about 180 people and where many homes were destroyed, we learned that it is extremely difficult to organise individual help and generosity on a large scale. There were warehouses full of donated clothes and other items that had to be cleaned, sorted, distributed or stored. And that takes a lot of volunteers and money. Money that might have been used for more efficient help elsewhere such as our wastewater treatment plants or drinking water: So far, 2.7 million liters have been distributed by the GRC. That is why organisations like ours are rather asking for money to finance relief that is delivered as efficiently as possible.
Help has to reach the people who need it
At the same time, the roads and railways in the flooded region were destroyed, telecommunications were down and even the local Red Cross buildings were gone. So it was very difficult to get help to the people affected.
Organisation and goodwill are critical. And someone might try to hijack your efforts.
And the authorities and relief organisations had to establish a system by which they organised their relief operations, which takes certain skills and political will, so results were mixed. And then, on top of all, anti-vaxxers tried to hijack the volunteer operations for their political purposes.
Things might not be perfect but what matters
But in the long run, the picture that will hold, is the enormous amount of solidarity and spontaneous generosity pouring out from so many people. And the way they somehow managed to work together in the face of chaos and destruction.
There is still room for small initiatives
Small scale and spontaneous initiatives within that scenario have their advantages when they are innovative, flexible and with direct contact to the people in need. I think that is where MPNE can play its role as a non-hierarchical and flexible network with people of different expertise.
Final take-away: support those who help
One other take-away was also: Make sure that the volunteers and professionals during that disaster response get the psychosocial support they need. It is great to be part of a huge relief operation, but you may experience a lot of distress. And so, making the people who are helping others more resilient is also important.
Read this very insightful piece by Red Cross Europe: https://redcross.eu/latest-news/experience-in-floods-response-feeding-the-disaster-management-system
Contact Anne under firstname.lastname@example.org