Looking back at the development and pursuit of quality and accountability standards during disaster response in Pakistan, the course seems to have quickened its pace and vastness following the devastating floods of 2010. Organizations committed to Sphere and HAP standards designed relief packages accordingly, established complaints mechanisms, and even when funding was not available dedicated resources to uphold the standards. With experience and lessons learned from previous disasters, promoters of Sphere and HAP coordinated and also assisted organizations new to these standards to understand the valuable tools and principles. Hundreds of aid workers attended training and started to use the Sphere Handbook as a guidance tool for effectively providing assistance according to the standards. For the first time, HAP members in Pakistan started meeting regularly as a forum; the importance of the forum quickly surfaced and resulted in the formation of an Accountability Learning and Working Group. CWS-P/A, with encouragement from other committed organizations, advocated for quality and accountability to be included on other platforms such as the U.N. cluster and coordination meetings.
The symbolic nature of the aforementioned examples of achievements for quality and accountability only imply the surface of what happened at the field level. Although the achievements are significant and theoretically the disaster response should have assisted affected communities in such a way that their basic needs were met according to minimum standards, the strong commitment of some humanitarian agencies was not matched by all. A lack of knowledge, capacity, and resources in general in Pakistan prevents organizations from addressing needs accordingly. However, there is promise. As organizations that responded during the 2005 earthquake had more experience and could more easily adapt flood response to the standards, organizations in provinces such as Sindh—where the 2010 floods for many was their first introduction to Sphere and HAP—will be better able to adapt during future disasters. The standards are being accepted and implemented, to varying degrees, by organizations ranging from community based organizations to international nongovernmental organizations.
At the onset of the disaster, the champions of quality and accountability joined together and committed to upholding principles and standards despite prevalent challenges. Main challenges included inaccessibility to flood affected areas, the vastness of the disaster, lack of and slow inflow of funds, and shortages of essential goods including food. These challenges did not go away, and it was through innovation, commitment, and compromise that organizations were able to overcome the obstacles. In some cases, quality and accountability standards were upheld; however, in other cases, overcoming challenges meant compromising on standards in some way. The types of compromises that would have been necessary include: providing assistance to less individuals; reducing the quality of goods due to market shortages; and depending on unconfirmed information on actual needs for inaccessible areas. These are only a few examples. What the challenges and resultant compromises indicate is that quality and accountability in disaster response in Pakistan, despite tremendous achievements, is still far from where it needs to be.
Over the past year, humanitarian organizations made conscious efforts to accountably serve the affected population of close to twenty million people by providing quality relief items and services and by preserving individuals’ dignity. The aforementioned gaps and challenges inhibited the degree to which this was achievable. However, the valuable lessons learned and even more importantly the sharing of these lessons will foster continued progress of the pursuit for compliance with quality and accountability standards. In any disaster throughout the world, challenges and gaps will exist, particularly as the number and scale of disasters increase. In addition to building upon the good practices, organizations need to dedicate human and financial resources to quality and accountability initiatives even during times of non emergency. This means that the global donor community also needs to accept the significance and value of meeting disaster survivors’ needs at no less than minimum standards. The costs of compromise and not meeting standards is far greater in the long-term as communities prone to disaster will face greater losses and have less capacity to self-recover. Humanitarians, by the nature of their role, have the responsibility not only to provide disaster survivors with what they need and want but also to assist them in building community capacity to sustain development, reduce risks from disasters, and avail their basic rights to the fullest.
These ways forward are not new ideas. However, the realization and continued growth in their acceptance will make a difference, not only in Pakistan but in any country afflicted by disaster. Perhaps, one of the most important lessons for humanitarian organizations to learn is that achieving quality and accountability is not so much the measurable results as it is the way in which we attain them. A pendulum effect is at force. Challenges come hand in hand with disaster, otherwise the event would not be classified a disaster. With disaster comes humanitarian action. It is this action which can be controlled. In an ideal humanitarian response, compromise on quality and accountability should never be accepted as beneficial. However, the ability to recognize how and when compromise is necessary will help humanitarian organizations respond to the best of their capacity. Knowledge of this is a power that will result in preserving dignity of affected communities, even if little more can be done. Despite the necessity at times, compromising on quality and accountability is not beneficial as a practice and should only be resulted to when all other avenues have been analyzed, considered, and when possible, attempted.
A year after the floods and at the start of a new monsoon season, all those working for recovery and rehabilitation should know that the responsibility to carry the pursuit of quality and accountability forward is with each and everyone. CWS-P/A is committed to this pursuit, and the organization knows that it is not alone. Opportunities for reflection, lessons learned and sharing, and for enhancing capacity will be there so organizations should embrace these opportunities, considering them as requirements of following their humanitarian responsibility.