One important element missing from the current framework is the role for emergency volunteers.
At the end of September, the now-dissolved parliament endorsed the Disaster Risk Mitigation and Prevention Bill, paving the way for a stronger disaster management system in Nepal.
A new five-layered mechanism has been designed, with the ‘Disaster Risk Mitigation and Management National Council’ to be led by the prime minister serving at the top layer.
One positive feature of the new legislation is creation of a permanent National Disaster Risk Mitigation and Management Center under Home Ministry that will be the focal point for any natural disaster and emergency. While various committees to be led by national and local politicians will have a role, it would be dangerous to delegate them all authority on prevention and response to natural disasters.
Having a new federal agency with decentralized offices will certainly offer stronger safeguards, even though their impact will greatly depend on professionalism of such an entity. Moreover, it will be important to have binding regulations attached to the new legislation without which the new system will never be able to live up to people’s expectations.
One important element missing in the current framework is strong role for emergency volunteers during emergencies. We all know that informal and spontaneous volunteers played an indispensable role during the post-earthquake scenario and during the recent floods in the Tarai despite the government’s’ attempts to block their actions.
The challenge is to not only recognize the role of volunteers in natural disasters but also to ensure that those civic groups that spontaneously get active in such situations get adequate support to provide safe and effective emergency services.
Acknowledgement of their vital contributions and their professionalization are indispensable. It is important to devise practical ways to mainstream their work via the mechanisms mentioned above. There are examples of effective mobilization of volunteers during the emergencies all over the world.
In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) actively leverages volunteers across the country during emergencies. It does so in strong partnership with another federal agency, Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that, in practice, is the agency mandated with promoting volunteerism across the states. More than 40,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, two of the major volunteering programs managed by CNCS through partnerships at local levels with hundreds of non-profits, were mobilized during hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Even right now, despite some criticism for their late deployment, more than 2,200 volunteers are currently offering emergency support in the American Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the two American territories facing humanitarian crises.
In Italy, Civil Protection, the national emergency and rescue body within the office of the Prime Minister, coordinates a broad network of agencies that include not only the armed forces and police but also a council of voluntary organizations that mobilize thousands of volunteer-run associations.
In Australia, each province has its own volunteerism promotion agency that maintains strong links with their respective governments. In line with recommendations from National Volunteer Summit held in 2001, an Australian Emergency Management Volunteer Forum has been established.
Moreover, a volunteering body for Australia Capital Territory (ACT) that includes Canberra and surrounding areas has set up Emergency Volunteering website, with the support of volunteering agencies of Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. This website serves as a coordinating platform for local volunteers during emergencies, especially those related to extreme weather events. Likewise, each province has its own mechanism to train and mobilize volunteers during emergencies.
“Review of informal volunteerism in emergencies and disasters: Definition, opportunities and challenges” published in The International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction in September 2015 recognizes the important role of informal volunteers during emergencies. While the paper calls for “co-producing emergency and disaster management”, suggesting the need for better coordination and involvement of informal volunteers in emergencies, it also asks for flexibility and creativity in ways informal volunteers are mainstreamed into formal mechanisms.
More research and more understanding of local dynamics shaping the phenomenon of informal volunteering in emergencies are required, says the paper. Otherwise “attempts to ‘integrate’ informal volunteers into formal systems may prove counterproductive by quashing the adaptability, innovativeness and responsiveness that informal volunteers bring to emergency and disaster management.”
Nepal could have an interesting experiment on involving local citizens in emergency operations. The country’s dynamic citizenry has already gained considerable experience in such situations. I am not referring to professional NGOs with paid staff involved in reconstruction. Here the attention is on local non-profits that are run voluntarily and on the informal groups that are active in emergencies.
To start with, these groups could start a dialogue among themselves, discussing and sharing their experiences, a step that could lead to drafting of a code of conduct on their involvement in future operations. It is important that such documents come from below rather than the top.
Besides, they could also prepare a working paper with ideas and suggestions on their role in emergencies, a contribution that could set the tone for broader discussions on the new act.
The new legislation adds momentum to the vital task of creation of an effective system to deal with natural calamities. It will be unwise of the new disaster management mechanisms to exclude these bold citizens, who are always ready to jump in and help during emergencies.
The author is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a local NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities