Among the bad news these days is that humanitarian responders large and small are reeling from the onslaught of crises. Natural disasters have become more numerous, frequent, and intense. Climate change and human demographics amplify their impact. Conflicts in the Middle East are generating their own humanitarian catastrophes of biblical dimension. The Ebola virus’ current rampage reminds us of the fragility and vulnerability of local public health systems in face of a killer disease – and there are many more diseases of equally damaging potential hiding in the animal kingdom gene pool.
The good news is that humanitarian responders – NGOs, companies, militaries, governmental agencies, international organizations – are braced for the challenge and committed to their missions. The relentless pace of crisis gives them experience, lessons to learn, and experimentation with new ideas. Nevertheless, responding organizations are no doubt worried about the insufficiency of their own resources, human and financial, in the face of the growing threat.

  What is also clear is that humanitarian responders must become as adaptive and agile as are the enemies – mutating diseases and outsized climatic phenomena. To that end, recent traumatic experiences with Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Philippines, rescuing besieged innocents in Northern Iraq, or trying to outrace Ebola, show that the humanitarian disaster relief enterprise has come to embrace more fully the imperative of collaboration. Such collaboration must be rapid and adaptive, and occur across formerly stove-piped organizational cultures: civilian and military, public and private, for-profit and voluntary.
Admittedly this kind of collaboration does not come naturally. We must overcome decades of mistrust, misperception, and bias. We must jump through hoops and over hurdles of regulation, mandates, funding and “culture.” We can accomplish this, however, in one of two ways: inefficiently, through trial and error on the ground in the throes of the next crisis and the one after that; or, through deliberate cross-organizational training and education in advance of the next crisis, which would prepare us better for the crisis after next.
Professional education for disaster relief is still in an embryonic stage. Military schools run educational programs (it’s in their DNA). US government agencies like the State Department and USAID also have some training programs, especially for public sector employees and some NGOs. The UN runs some programs also. The private sector is way behind in professional education for disaster relief. While these programs are an important step in the right direction, almost none of them include participants from all organizational cultures together in the same classroom. Why would this be necessary? For four reasons:
• We should educate our career professionals about their own biases and misperceptions regarding “the other.” That breaks down barriers, builds trust, and allows effective communication.
• We can learn about each other’s resources and capabilities so we can leverage them where possible for the benefit of the common goal, without false pride, parsimony, or envy. We then can become operationally much more effective – many hands lift the heavy weight together.
• Mutual familiarity allows for much smoother pre-crisis planning, training and exercises, and the timely sharing of useful knowledge and pitfalls to avoid.
• We will learn to become more effective within our own organizations, able to manage fast-breaking events more efficiently, and achieve our own organizational goals more effectively.

The Institute for Defense and Business (and its Center for Stabilization and Economic Reconstruction), a non-profit educational institute affiliated with the University of North Carolina and located in Chapel Hill, operates under this collaborative, inclusive philosophy. Learn more at

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