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Promoting organisational change: the experience of the Red Cross in Haiti

What have we learned in the last few years while humanitarian and development actors have continued to provide aid following the earthquake which struck Haiti on 12 January 2010? What lessons from this unique experience will allow us to increase the quality of our future operations and improve the effectiveness, efficiency and impact of our programmes? In order to answer these two essential questions, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and all its members actively involved in Haiti, launched a major learning project in 2012 which aimed to promote organisational change by integrating the knowledge acquired in Haiti into its procedures and operational methods.

The International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent covered 25% of the response to the earthquake during the first weeks of the acute emergency, principally in the distribution of potable water and essential goods. Faced with the impact of the disaster, made worse by deeply rooted vulnerabilities, the Movement mobilised considerable human, material, logistical and financial resources to respond to the needs and expectations of the Haitian population and the host national society, the Haitian Red Cross. The IFRC therefore continually tried to adapt its programmes to the challenges posed by the operational context, particularly in the Haitian capital. In order to learn from this experience and become a “learning organisation”, the IFRC established a methodology for Haiti which consisted of identifying, formalising, disseminating and institutionalising the lessons drawn from the operation. An initial conference in April 2012 had made it possible to collectively identify the main lessons learned by the Movement in Haiti. The end of 2012 and 2013 were used to highlight and clarify lessons via individual and group interviews, documentary reviews and the development of learning materials (case studies, good practice, toolkits, etc.), working notably with Groupe URD to create a socio-cultural evaluation tool for its Water, Hygiene and Sanitation programmes.

The second learning conference, which was held on 18 and 19 September 2013 in Panama, the country which hosts the IFRC’s regional office for the Americas, aimed to make these principle lessons and learning materials known and promote improved practices in areas such as: coordination within the Movement, cooperation with external actors and humanitarian diplomacy, the transition between emergency and recovery phases, the definition of exit strategies, recovery and resilience in urban environments, notably the implementation of what is known as an ‘integrated’ response to needs, the reinforcement of operational capacities, the organisational development of the host national society, internal audits and risk management.

The ambassadors of the different discussion groups worked on these subjects from a particular point of view: that of ‘mega-disasters’ – responding to large-scale disasters, with a specific objective: improving the performance of the organisation in all of these areas in future large-scale responses.

Bringing together more than 150 directors, managers, coordinators and practitioners from field and regional offices as well as the IFRC headquarters and 32 national societies, the objective of this conference was to collectively define the actions that would allow the knowledge acquired in Haiti to be institutionalised. In a learning environment that aimed to be didactic and varied, the participants from the Movement were able to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues from the Red Cross, as well as with representatives of OCHA, UNDP, AECID and Groupe URD, represented by Alice Corbet, an Anthropologist and Ethnologist who has published a report on the community-based approach in the camp of Canaan in Port-au-Prince. As the ambassador of a think tank which promotes understanding of the context and local issues, Alice Corbet brought a fresh perspective on the social and cultural considerations of humanitarian action. She helped the members of the IFRC to identify a way of expanding the field of expertise of the Red Cross in relation to the community-based approach. This would consist of creating a pool of specialists who could be deployed in future operations or could train Red Cross teams and volunteers in using the research tools and methods of cultural and social anthropology (rites, customs, kinship, techniques, habitats, spatial and temporal representations, etc.). This would allow the organisation as a whole to strengthen its community and local anchorage and improve the quality and pertinence of its services.

This type of proposal is part of a group of measures which have been identified together to enact an organisational change which will lead to the adaptation or the elaboration of policies, procedures, systems and tools related to six major themes which emerged during the conference:

  • Readiness: being better prepared to respond to large scale disasters
  • Community-based approach: improving knowledge about the communities that we are providing with assistance and with whom we work
  • Recovery: anticipating and responding sustainably to needs and vulnerabilities
  • Human resources: deploying the right person in the right place and at the right time
  • Resilience of the host national society: increasing the capacity of the host national society to recover and resist shocks
  • Humanitarian diplomacy: positioning the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its members

A road map for implementing the measures proposed during the conference is currently being prepared and will be presented for approval by the management of the IFRC in the coming weeks. More than 16 hours of recording and filming were made during the conference. The plenary sessions were broadcast live and can still be viewed at http://desaprender.hoop.la/topic/livestreaming. The videos of the workgroup presentations can also be viewed at http://www.cruzroja.org/#!haiti-learning-conference/c1nuy.

This conference and all the preparatory work of the last few years not only established a clear path for learning for the Haiti operation at different levels, but were above all a fantastic opportunity to think about the place that such an initiative should be given so that learning becomes an integral part of its culture.


Charlotte Masselot
Evaluation, Accountability and Learning Movement Coordinator