Aid academy sets sights on Arab world

Training Arab aid workers as first responders to local disasters and conflict could shrink the cost of responding to global crises, according to the CEO of the world’s first academy for humanitarian relief

A dearth of frontline aid workers from the Middle East region slows the delivery of relief in the first, crucial 48hrs after a disaster, and ramps up costs as agencies parachute in foreign teams, said Saba Al-Mubaslat, CEO, Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA).

“When the Syria crisis response began in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, we found the number of those able to hit the ground running, speak the language and understand the cultural aspects, were minimal,”Al-Mubaslat told Philanthropy Age. “That’s concerning because it translates into costs. If each aid worker needs a translator, for example, to communicate with the affected population, then you are in trouble.”

The HLA, a collaboration between the private sector, governments and global aid agencies, aims to train 100,000 people from 50 countries in the next five years as relief workers. Based in London, it hopes to launch operations in the Middle East next year, and open 10 training centres around the world by 2020.

Last year saw a record number of severe global humanitarian emergencies, with the highest number of refugees the world has seen since the second world war. Some 50 million people were forced to flee their homes.

Though international aid agencies will always be able to offer additional resources and expertise, the HLA could help create local teams able to lead relief efforts, Al-Mubaslat said. The academy hopes to train 4,520 individuals globally in its first year. There are just 450,000 professional humanitarian workers worldwide, according to the charity’s estimates.

Another tactic could be to set up national databases to track aid workers – and their skillsets – who could be called on in times of crisis. “[A database] is not an innovation; it’s a need,” she said.

“Preparedness is investment you make even if you’re not sure it will be needed”

Another challenge is encouraging local graduates and school leavers to consider aid work as a serious career option. Deterrents include lower salaries than those seen in other industries, the lack of relevant courses in Arabic, and limited information about how to advance in the industry.

“Learning materials are mostly not available in Arabic, so it becomes a prerequisite to have good English – those who had good education and private schools – to professionalise their careers as aid workers, rather than those who were less fortunate,” said Al-Mubaslat. “One of the key points of the academy is to facilitate access to quality learning and experience exchange.”

Moreover, the academy wants to promote a shift in thinking towards investing in disaster preparedness and the money that could be saved from limiting economic losses. “What we want to change is the upfront, proactive investment in building people’s capacity,” said Al-Mubaslat. “Preparedness is investment you make even if you’re not sure it will be needed. [But] when it is needed, it pays back immediately. That’s the discussion we need to have with governments.”

HLA hopes to swell the ranks of understaffed emergency aid teams, who face a rising number of complex global disasters, including the more than 4 million Syrian refugees in the region. The academy has received just over 40 per cent of the £50m ($77.5m) it needs for the first five-year phase.

Investment in aid professionals continues to pay dividends even once the initial shock has passed, added Al-Mubaslat. “The need for aid workers in the recovery stage is going to be immense. The whole Middle East is being reshaped. The better prepared we are, the more we can all contribute to shaping it in a positive way.”