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Why We Need to Think Again About How We Deal With Humanitarian Crises

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2013 saw some of the worst humanitarian crises in living memory. As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year the refugee crisis it has generated in the region has become the greatest humanitarian challenge in a generation. In Central African Republic and South Sudan, existing deep-rooted humanitarian problems have been magnified by ongoing ethnic and political violence.

We need to face the reality that an urgent shift is needed in the way we respond to humanitarian crises. When the lives of innocent people are in real and present danger most of them are saved by people they already know. The first responders to any disasters are your family, your neighbours and your community. The better these first responders are prepared, the more lives will be saved and the costs of disaster responses will be minimized.

Families pull their loved ones from collapsed buildings or raging waters. Local doctors, nurses and midwives assist their communities from makeshift clinics and the remnants of their hospitals. In the immediate hours after Typhoon Haiyan it was the local health workers who tended to the injured before international responders arrived. In Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, most of the staff providing help are themselves refugees. The caregivers in the displaced persons settlements in the Central African Republic are drawn from the same displaced communities. Within the UN humanitarian system alone, national staff outnumber their international colleagues by more than seven to one.

What does training first responders and building resilience mean at a personal level? Even the act of childbirth can be a disaster for many. More than a million children are orphaned every year when their mothers die in childbirth for want of a trained midwife. Those same orphans are more likely to die in their first five years than the children of mothers who survived childbirth.

Countless lives can be saved and unimaginable suffering can be avoided by training local people and communities to withstand, adapt and quickly recover from disasters. Creating millions of First Responders around the world in the communities most at risk is not only a faster and smarter response but it is also cheaper. Globally every pound, dollar or euro invested in preparing First Responders saves at least seven in disaster recovery.

The international community needs to step up its efforts by investing in a model that is more effective than responding only after a crisis occurs. Only 5.4 percent of humanitarian aid is invested in disaster preparedness and prevention.

As disasters continue to increase in lives lost and in damage costs it is time for the international community to look again at the fundamentals of disaster response and invest in training the real First Responders, the families and communities affected by these emergencies.

This week International Medical Corps and the European Commission are launching the First Responders campaign to celebrate the millions of unsung heroes who respond to humanitarian crises every day. We have collected the stories of incredible First Responders around the world at www.FirstRespondersCampaign.org. Now is the time for people across Europe to explore these stories, share their messages of hope and pledge to support local First Responders. They are the true face of humanitarian response.