Catherine Cousar is the administrative specialist for the Forage Center. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama, she is graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas.
Last March, I served as assistant director for Coastal Promise 2018, a crisis simulation put on by the Forage Center. We spent four days in an old warehouse in a small town called Fellsmere, Florida, putting 11 graduate students through a humanitarian crisis simulation. The exercise simulated what members of an international NGO would experience coming into a country to provide humanitarian assistance after a disaster. The students played the roles of aid workers for a U.S.-based NGO called the “Forage Corps.” They were sent to set up an Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Costero, a fictional South American country that had just been hit with a major hurricane. I spent the next four days assisting the country director in adjusting the simulation plan, directing role players, and in one of my less glamorous moments, unclogging a toilet. During that time, I also had the rare opportunity to observe the simulation participants' victories and stumbles. I came away with five unexpected conclusions about the nature of humanitarian assistance.
1. You can’t provide humanitarian assistance if you don’t understand humanitarian principles.
Prior to becoming involved with the Forage Center, I had no experience in the field of humanitarian assistance. My background from a master's in global policy studies and two years in the Peace Corps is primarily in development, diplomacy, and international law. Many of the students were the same, with experience in similar disciplines. This meant that we were all new to the basic principles of humanitarian assistance when we signed up for the simulation.
While we covered these principles in the preparatory reading materials and in some of the first briefings, that wasn’t enough yet for them to sink in at a deeper level. During the second day of the simulation, the participants unintentionally broke several international laws. They agreed to allow the Costeran military to use government vehicles to transport Forage Corps supplies from the coast to their refugee camp in the north. They also agreed to only set up a refugee camp in the north half of the country and to allow the Costeran military to guard the camp.
They unintentionally violated all four of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Humanitarian Principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Humanitarian action has to address human suffering regardless of where it takes place; humanitarian actors can’t take sides, they have to be impartial, and they have to be autonomous. Allowing a host country's government to transport equipment, letting soldiers guard a camp, and not providing aid to half of a country is not in keeping with international standards. The students had become so focused on achieving their mission objective of setting up a refugee camp that they lost sight of the core principles that were meant ensure that their actions were helpful.
2. All help isn’t good help. If you don’t stick to your principles, you can make a situation worse.
We hadn't expected the students to accidentally violate OCHA’s humanitarian principles, and it required us to alter the plan we had for the simulation. We wanted to model realistic consequences for the participants' decisions. On the bureaucratic side, this meant their country director rejected the participants' agreement. On the harsher side, we wrote a checkpoint massacre into the simulation. The participants had only set up a refugee camp in the northern part of the country, while the greatest need for aid was in the south, and people had to cross a volatile checkpoint to go from the south to the north of the country. Providing aid in only one place made the situation worse.
While this might seem like a severe consequence to model, it taught an important lesson. Aid alone, without thought, can be very dangerous. Any emergency aid worker is still acting within a social and political context, and human elements don’t go away just because there has been a hurricane. If you provide assistance in the wrong way, it can be worse than doing nothing at all. This is something the United Nations and other organizations have to consider and work through every day.
3. You have to make sure you don’t lose the big picture in the details.
One thing I learned the hard way as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama is to not get lost in the weeds. I spent a lot of time as a volunteer focusing on the success or failure of small projects, rather than understanding my overall role as a volunteer in my community. Small, concrete problems can be attention-grabbing, partially because they call for a clear set of actions.
When we gave the students a copy of a FEMA supply catalog to order supplies for the refugee camp, they became overly focused on picking out specific items. They ordered chemical toilets before determining if they had the capacity to dig latrines; bottled water before determining if they had access to a local water supply; food, but no stoves or gas to cook it with; cots, but no tents to put them in. To their credit, they remembered to order tampons, baby formula, and many essentials that can easily be overlooked.
Later in the exercise, by stepping back and looking at the entire crisis and the situation on the ground, the students were able to better understand the actual needs of a refugee camp. They also looked more closely at the guides we had provided on what basic supplies, and in what amounts, are needed for people on a daily basis. The students revised their list and ordered more tents. They thought about how many they would need for families, how many for medical care, for the refugees to use for worship. They began to see the larger context of how they could have a safe and accessible camp.
4. Human compassion is absolutely essential, and it’s the hardest thing to have.
The absolute hardest part of any kind of humanitarian work is dealing with people. The hardest lesson I learned in the Peace Corps, which every volunteer learns sooner or later, is that people are complex and may not always want the help you are offering. You often find yourself in deeply uncomfortable and exhausting situations. This became very clear as we watched the students interact with the role players.
Role players are essential to the Coastal Promise crisis simulation. We use a combination of Forage Center staff and local volunteers. They played a variety of different civilian roles, primarily refugees, including people with both physical and mental trauma and injuries.
The students were very good at handling the administrative part of setting up the refugee camp, but they had a harder time handling personal interactions. Many of the role players said that they felt the students had been overly brusque with them and more focused on writing down their information than talking with them. This became a recurring theme throughout the exercise, with the students filling out forms while talking to refuges, dismissing their concerns, or in other ways focusing more on the logistical problems than the people. They forgot to offer people chairs, did not take off their hats during meetings, and kept many interactions brief. Comforting and calming upset refugees did not come naturally to them, although to be fair, this is true for many.
I think the heart of the issue is how they perceived aid work. At the start of the exercise, they seemed to prioritize remaining aloof and impartial. While impartiality is important when dealing with governments and groups, it won’t help in dealing with someone who is traumatized or hurt. One thing I have heard experienced aid workers talk about repeatedly is how they have connected with the people they are helping.
5. There are no easy answers.
After the simulation finished, we took half a day to debrief and talk about everyone’s experiences. As we talked, many of the students asked what they could have done better in certain situations, everything from the different negotiations to how they dealt with a refugee who was having a breakdown. Members of the Forage Center staff were able to offer advice from their own experiences, but there was never one solution or one answer. There are many good and compassionate ways to help someone in crisis, but there is no one, best way. When the students asked how to balance helping individual refugees against other things they needed to do, there was again no clear answer.
Humanitarian assistance is a broad and complex field. A lot of the time, it is essential that aid workers are able to use their own best judgment. Fortunately, no one is ever starting from scratch. As I mentioned earlier, there are OCHA’s humanitarian principles. Beyond that, every organization has a mission statement and its own set of rules. While none of these principles provide a guide for how to act in specific situations, they do show how to act overall.
In the end, the students said they learned a lot from the simulation. The simulation gave them a chance to make mistakes and learn somewhere safe. I have seen and heard of far more experienced professionals making every single error I saw in the simulation. The students kept it together for four days on very little sleep and a lot of pressure. They came a long way, and if any of them decide to go further, the future for humanitarian assistance is looking good.