A new quick-disbursing humanitarian funding facility is being used for the first time to help tackle a serious cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone, where more than 220 people have died and the authorities have declared a national emergency.
The UK’s Rapid Response Facility (RRF) was established by the Department of International Development (DFID) after a critical independent assessment of its operations by Lord Ashdown. The report highlighted the way in which agencies had to produce hasty and often highly speculative proposals in order to get funding for emergencies, saying they could then find themselves locked into a course of action which might not be the most effective.
RRF was set up in March with a total of 33 organizations declared to have a proven record of response and pre-qualified to benefit from its funding. All that was needed was a suitable emergency.
That trigger came last week when the Sierra Leone government declared a national crisis as the death toll rose in the cholera outbreak, which has also hit neighbouring Guinea.
After a discussion with Sierra Leone President Ernest Karoma to discuss what was needed, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, Andrew Mitchell, decided to release the RRF. “Basically because this is a good situation for it,” a DFID spokesman told IRIN. “There are a lot of NGOs working in Sierra Leone who needed a quick source of supplies and funds, and we could also use our private sector contacts to get things to them.” Just over US$3 million is being made available.
Once the initial decision had been made, things moved fast. Agencies on the RRF “approved list” which had a presence in Sierra Leone and expertise in water and sanitation were invited to apply for funds. “Because they are pre-qualified, it makes it a much quicker turnaround,” said the DFID spokesman. “We know them and we are confident that they know what they are doing.”
Save the Children (SC) got the invitation to apply on the evening of 22 August, calling for submissions by the afternoon of 23 August, and they were informed within just a few hours that their application had been successful.
“It was fast,” said Benedict Dempsey, SC’s senior humanitarian affairs adviser, “And yes, it was hard work. But it was all in the interest of speed. We have constantly been asking for things to happen more quickly, so our people were quite happy with that.”
|An emergency like this is slightly different from what we expected the RRF to be for - we had been thinking of an earthquake, something like that|
The DFID money does not normally appear in the NGOs’ bank accounts straight away, but Dempsey told IRIN that was not an issue. “Getting confirmation is what enables us to act. If you don’t have that confirmation you have to take a huge financial risk in order to act, and if it goes wrong you can end up with a huge black hole in your funding.”
The six successful agencies moved quickly in their turn. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) started their programme on 25 August in Kono and Kenema districts where they were already active. These are areas not yet seriously affected by cholera so most IRC efforts are going into prevention.
Antonio Cabral, the IRC’s regional programme manager, says the nature of this emergency meant that they could start work more or less straight away. “An emergency like this is slightly different from what we expected the RRF to be for - we had been thinking of an earthquake, something like that. But this is something which has been on the cards for a while; we were aware of the outbreak, and had resources in the area.”
Private sector role
Cabral, like Dempsey, is interested in DFID’s declared intention to involve the private sector and to play a coordinating role itself. DFID cites logistic companies like DHL and suppliers of various kinds of sanitation equipment as the principal partners. “As we understand it, it is about trying to coordinate supplies,” said Cabral, “and getting better prices for procurement, especially of those things which have to be bought internationally. It will probably mean that the cost to agencies will be lower. Also because of the good relations DFID has traditionally had with the Sierra Leone government, the supplies should get into the country quicker.”
Both SC and IRC see the move to fleeter, more flexible funding mechanisms for emergencies as a general trend among donors, not confined to the UK.
Cabral pointed out that the Swedish development agency (SIDA), for instance, is even faster than DFID, and disburses money in advance for emergencies which may arise over the coming year.
“So we have got a pot of money for rapid response, which is sitting there and it is up to us to tell them: ‘There is an emergency, and we want do this and this, and are you OK with that or not?’ And they will tell us yes or no within a matter of hours.”