B. Immediate Response

1. Protection of Populations at Risk

An immediate need for at-risk populations is a secure location where their safety and human rights are ensured. Initiating an assistance program in an unsafe location or an atmosphere of vulnerability to violence or discrimination is difficult.

Because the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s (OFDA’s) humanitarian assistance is often undertaken in areas that are potentially dangerous for at-risk populations, all OFDA field staff should maintain an awareness of the security problems facing target populations and the positive or negative impacts that assistance programs can have in such contexts. OFDA seeks to apply a "protection mindset" to its assessments, strategies, monitoring, and evaluation of assistance programs. At a minimum, the goal is to ensure that assistance programs "do no harm," e.g., do not aggravate local tensions, expose target populations to greater danger, or inadvertently further empower those who are responsible for conflict or abuse. In some situations, wisely designed and implemented assistance programs can mitigate or prevent protection problems, such as violence, abuse, theft, harassment, or exploitation. In short, OFDA seeks to provide assistance in ways that enhance protection.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) uses a broad definition of protection, believing that at-risk populations should be granted the full security and protection provided under applicable norms of national law, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law for which the United States has ratified the treaties or conventions in question or otherwise has accepted these principles as reflecting customary international law. In situations of armed conflict, principles and rules of international humanitarian law guide OFDA assistance. In addition, the United Nations’ (UN’s) Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, although not accepted by the United States as an expression of governing international law, offer a useful tool and framework for dealing with the affected population.

a. Protection Problems

Examples of protection problems encountered by at-risk
populations targeted for OFDA assistance include:

  • Attacks on displaced person (DP) camps by armed groups.
  • Blockage of humanitarian deliveries.
  • Theft or diversion of food or nonfood items after distribution to targeted populations.
  • Refusal of aid by needy populations for fear of attracting attacks.
  • Detention or harassment of at-risk populations by local security personnel.
  • Forcible return home of displaced populations.
  • Forced conscription of young males at assistance sites.
  • Sexual violence against women and girls.
  • Tensions between DPs and local populations.
  • Use of at-risk populations as human shields.
  • Loss of identity cards or poor registration procedures at internally displaced person (IDP) sites.
  • Resorting to prostitution for survival.

b. Possible Actions

Although OFDA assistance programs may be incapable of immediately eliminating protection problems faced by the affected population, OFDA staff should seek to promote protection to the extent possible by being aware of sources of vulnerability and seeking to reduce them. In particularly severe situations, OFDA may need to pursue an outcome with the fewest negative effects rather than an ideal solution that is unattainable. Key questions and considerations help provide a protection component for humanitarian assistance programs.

  • Do local authorities view the at-risk population sympathetically? What divisions might exist along ethnic, religious, or political lines in areas of assistance?
  • Cooperation with local officials can help OFDA provide humanitarian assistance effectively, and ascertaining the possible biases and interests of these officials can help to identify potential protection problems for at-risk populations.
  • Within at-risk populations, what groups are particularly vulnerable, and why?
  • At-risk populations are not homogenous. Some subgroups are more vulnerable than others or less capable of getting their fair share.
  • How reliable and comprehensive are available data? Are data disaggregated by gender and age?

Statistics often determine how an emergency is perceived and how the outside world responds. Wildly inaccurate data can skew the humanitarian response, miss critical needs, or result in mistaken priorities. Data disaggregated by gender and age, if available, will usually provide a better understanding of problems that otherwise would not be readily apparent.

  • Have targeted populations been consulted about their needs and concerns? Do "leaders" among the targeted population truly represent the population’s best interests?

Consultation can uncover problems of aid diversion, harassment, nighttime violence, and other protection issues that are not readily apparent. Consultation can also reveal ways to better provide assistance. Group leaders who do not have the trust of their followers may undermine the effectiveness and impartiality of assistance programs.

  • Are women in the target group properly involved in program design and implementation?

When women and children are not part of the planning and implementation phases, their local expertise and opinions are not tapped and project design will likely fail to address gender-sensitive topics. So that all types of needs and capacities are represented, the women and youth chosen to help design and implement programs should, as much as possible, reflect the sociocultural variability within the population.

  • Can assistance be delivered or infrastructure constructed in ways that might enhance protection?

Latrines, health clinics, and other infrastructure should be positioned with an eye to the proper balance between safety and privacy. In some situations, routine assistance activities such as food distributions can be safer or more dangerous for targeted populations depending on the time of day, distance from homes, and the amounts distributed. Proper monitoring of assistance activities can identify or prevent protection problems.

  • What steps can be taken to help at-risk populations mitigate their own protection problems?

When possible, at-risk populations should be empowered to act in support of their own protection. Affected populations almost always know more than humanitarian agencies about their predicament, the nature and timing of the threats confronting them, the mindset of the people posing threats, and opportunities to resist those threats.

2. Organizational Considerations for Displaced Persons

Once the situation and needs have been assessed and the pro-tection of individuals has been secured, the priority will be to provide vital assistance to the affected population. In situations in which populations are displaced, key organizational and planning decisions that may determine the future of relief operations must be made. These decisions involve the issues summarized below. If the following issues are not quickly and correctly addressed, they will be difficult to resolve later:

  • The location of the DPs will have a major influence on how assistance is provided. If the DPs are not already concen-trated in settlements, they should not be relocated to settle-ments unless compelling reasons exist for breaking their pattern of spontaneous and informal settlements. New arrivals may need to be diverted elsewhere. On the other hand, if they are already in settlements that are unsatisfac-tory, the settlements must be improved or they must be moved. Particular attention should be paid to the special needs of women and children. The difficulty in moving DPs from an unsuitable site often increases markedly with time.
  • Reception or transit centers are generally recommended when an influx is likely to continue.
  • The optimum population for a campsite should be determined and the camp designed accordingly. Careful control of the camp population should be exercised so that the different sections of the camp are filled in an orderly manner as people arrive.
  • An accurate estimate of numbers of people in the camp is important for assistance to be effective. Family registration and a fair distribution system should be established first.

3. Material Assistance

The specific type and amount of emergency assistance required will depend on the factors to consider for each situation. These factors are as follows:

  • The general condition of the affected population (people in extreme distress will need extraordinary measures).
  • The immediately available resources (e.g., unfamiliar food may have to be used if nothing else can be found).
  • The normal customs of the affected population.

The type and amount of emergency assistance must be consistent with the aim of ensuring the survival and basic well-being of the affected population, fairly applied, and respected by all.

The first priority in an emergency is to provide the organizational framework required to meet the needs of the emergency. The affected country, UN relief organizations, private voluntary organizations (PVOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations (IOs) must be mobilized according to a plan for immediate action. Ensuring that the involved parties have the logistical capacity needed to deliver the assistance will be of critical importance.

When the organizational framework has been established, the immediate needs of the affected population must be met. The following is a list of needs in the order of their importance.

  • Water. Determine the water needs of the population. Protect existing water sources from pollution, and establish new sources if needed. Establish storage facilities to meet the population’s needs. Transport water to the campsite if the need cannot otherwise be met.
  • Food. Ensure that at least the minimum need for energy is met (a full ration can follow). Set up special feeding programs if clear indications of malnutrition are present. Establish storage facilities.
  • Immunization for Measles. Ideally, a mass measles immu-nization program should be instituted where displaced people, crowded or unsanitary conditions, and/or widespread mal-nutrition are present, regardless of whether or not measles has been reported. The target age group depends on the vaccine coverage in the country of origin of the affected population. The optimal age group is 6 months through 14 years of age. If resources are scarce, immunize children aged 6 months through 59 months. Provide appropriate vitamin A supplementation. If significant malnutrition is pres-ent, implementing a measles immunization program as soon as possible is absolutely essential. After diarrhea, measles is the highest cause of death among children under 5 years of age in DP situations.
  • Health Care. Provide the necessary organizational assistance, health personnel, basic drugs, and equipment in close con-sultation with national and local health authorities. Although the immediate need and demand may be for curative care, preventative, reproductive, and particularly environmental health measures should not be neglected.
  • Emergency Shelter. Use local supplies and services, when possible, to meet shelter needs for roofing and other materials. Request outside supplies (e.g., plastic sheeting, tents) only if absolutely necessary.
  • Sanitation. Isolate human excreta from water sources and inhabited areas. Design appropriate sites for defecation and waste disposal.

Promote self-sufficiency in the affected population from the start; involve them in the planning for their welfare. This task may be difficult, but if the affected population is not involved, the effec-tiveness of the emergency assistance will be severely reduced, and an early opportunity to help them to start recovering from the psychological effects of their ordeal may be missed.

The remaining sections in this chapter provide an indepth review of the needs of communities affected by a disaster, focusing on water, food and nutrition, health, DP camps, and sanitation and environmental health issues. While the discussion in these sections often emphasizes IDPs, most of the material is also applicable to assisting with the relief needs of any population impacted by disaster or conflict.

TOC: Information on Populations at Risk