Mainstreaming economic recovery into humanitarian response programming

11 May 2014 | Sphere Project

A woman sells food in Igbikisikala-Ama, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. © Wendy Bruere/IRINEconomic recovery is becoming an important component of humanitarian relief programming. Photo: A woman sells food in Igbikisikala-Ama, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. © Wendy Bruere/IRIN

The first stages of a humanitarian response may have crucial consequences for the longer-term recovery that should begin once the crisis has subsided. If not properly done, economic development programs can do more harm than good. That's where the Minimum Economic Recovery Standards (MERS) enter the picture, providing guidance to humanitarian practitioners who are not necessarily trained in market development.

To learn more about how MERS standards accomplish their goals, we interviewed William Wallis. A senior program associate at the Small Enterprise Education and Promotion (SEEP) Network, he coordinates the Minimum Economic Recovery Standards project.

With a background in local economic development and rural livelihoods, Wallis worked on issues of rural poverty and enterprise development in Latin America prior to joining SEEP. Before that, he worked in a private company providing supplies to humanitarian agencies responding to complex humanitarian emergencies.

The experience of dealing with huge logistical challenges encountered in humanitarian responses to several crises convinced him of the importance of longer-term solutions and of working with and building the capacity of local communities.

What is "economic recovery" - in simple words?

Economic recovery is about helping people who have been affected by a disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane get back on their feet.

When a major catastrophe strikes and leaves thousands of people destitute, relief agencies rush in to provide life-saving supplies including water, food and medicines. This relief may have unintended consequences on local market systems. For example, if the food for distribution is flown in from other countries even when it is available through local markets, it undermines the ability of local farmers to continue to function.

Economic recovery is about helping people to achieve self-reliance by supporting their efforts to rebuild as well as focusing on the recovery of the economic system within which they function. It's about setting the stage for long-term recovery by ensuring that the incentives for local business and small enterprises do not disappear.

How did the minimum economic recovery standards come into being?

The Minimum Economic Recovery Standards (MERS) are rooted in past crises, such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti and complex humanitarian emergencies and protracted crisis in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

Several members of the SEEP Network working in humanitarian emergency response felt the need for a space to talk about the challenges of supporting economic recovery in crisis environments. A lively debate between humanitarians and market specialists emerged showing the need to mainstream economic recovery to the early stages of post-crisis assistance.

Market specialists complained, for instance, about having to deal with the market failures caused by humanitarian intervention at the first, emergency, stage. The standards came out of the understanding that interventions in crisis situations need to take into account how short-term strategies can impact longer-term recovery.

In 2007, SEEP convened a task force to develop the first draft of the MERS through a consultative process that involved a broad consortium of practitioners from around 30 international humanitarian agencies. A practitioner-led group developed each section of the MERS Handbook.

The first edition of MERS was published in 2009 and translated into Spanish, French and Arabic. Regional consultations on MERS were held in East Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and South East Asia. The standards were later field-tested by a number of agencies and pilot training courses were implemented in Indonesia and Jordan, with consultations in Ecuador, Kenya and the UK.

A second, revised edition was published in 2010. This included the input and feedback of more than 200 practitioners from 63 organizations. In late 2012, SEEP launched a training program to promote greater awareness and use of MERS.

Why did you need "standards" to work on economic recovery issues?

There is a broad consensus that humanitarian agencies need to look beyond short-term relief. Many organizations are thus implementing projects that promote economic development and livelihoods activities as they move from relief to early recovery. It is really important that they understand that unless activities are economically viable and pay attention to market dynamics, they can do more harm than good.

The standards provide step-by-step guidance to humanitarian practitioners who are not necessarily trained in market development, helping them to understand the potential harm that can result from market distortions or promoting economic activities that do not respond to a real market demand or take into account existing market dynamics.

There are many things that can go wrong, be it bad timing when distributing seeds, donating machinery that goes into disrepair due to lack of parts or livestock that falls ill. The standards provide clear examples based on the collective experience and good practice of organizations that have worked in crises as diverse as tsunamis, earthquakes and civil wars.

Following the lead of the Sphere Project, MERS provides a common framework of analysis to identify appropriate strategies and offer guidance to field practitioners on how to incorporate principles of good economic recovery as they navigate through very chaotic situations with multiple actors and partner organizations. The four technical chapters deal with financial services, employment, productive assets and enterprise development.

What have you achieved since the launch of the standards?

Even though it is difficult to measure impact and attribute changes in the humanitarian field to the launch of the MERS standards, it is clear that economic recovery is now an important component of humanitarian relief programming. In fact, what we have seen is that many SEEP member organizations, as well as UN agencies and donors have included economic recovery into their humanitarian response programs.

As organizations introduce economic recovery into their programming, new positions for economic recovery or livelihoods experts are opened, new livelihoods departments are created and funding and resources for economic recovery and livelihoods increase across the industry. We have also seen a considerable growth in pledges and budget appropriations for economic recovery and livelihoods.

Our training program, which started in 2013, has certified 100 general practitioners and accredited 37 trainers of trainers worldwide. We have delivered trainings in regional hubs such as Bangkok, Dakar, Beirut, Nairobi, Washington, D.C. and most recently Manila. We've trained field practitioners from 50 of the world's leading humanitarian agencies working in over 20 countries. The MERS handbook has consistently been the top downloaded resource on the SEEP network website with over 1000 downloads.

What has the companionship with the Sphere Project contributed to your work?

The Sphere Project was involved in MERS since its conception and has provided invaluable guidance and support throughout the project. MERS emulated the Sphere consultative process and followed the same structure including core and technical standards, each with key actions, key indicators and guidance notes.

According to the feedback we receive, the fact that both handbooks share the same format has allowed field practitioners familiar with Sphere to rapidly familiarize themselves with MERS. That makes MERS easier to use and a complement to the Sphere handbook. Given Sphere's brand recognition and credibility, we are happy to be recognized as its companion.

What are your plans?

Although we see positive trends in this field, we still feel we have a long way to go to mainstream economic recovery into humanitarian response programming. Economic recovery is still viewed as a later-stage activity and, consequently, as an afterthought.

In order to reach a much broader audience, we are designing an e-learning course that we would like to offer to large humanitarian agencies as part of their staff training and orientation programs.

We are completing our strategic plan through 2020, focused on five strategic goals: improved economic recovery practice, sharing best practice, a community of practice, improved information for field practitioners and rolling out MERS in complex settings.

We plan to launch local learning groups in which practitioners and stakeholders can share lessons learned, discuss challenges and raise questions. We will host a series of learning events to allow the community of MERS practitioners and trainers to share experiences on how MERS has been applied in the field. And we will continue to provide courses through our training program.

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