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Disaster, war and Ebola: when and how should aid agencies pull out?

A close-up look at the crucial decision making process

<p>Picture: Catholic Relief Services</p>

Picture: Catholic Relief Services

  • Patricia Zapor for Catholic News Service
  • International
  • August 26, 2014
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When the Peace Corps announced in late July that it was evacuating its 340 volunteers from the three West African countries most affected by the Ebola virus, the action was far from a panic-driven decision, but instead followed a protocol.

A similar protocol for health and security risks has led Catholic Relief Services to keep its personnel in the same countries -- Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea -- while following enhanced sanitary procedures and restricting most travel.

In a globalized society in which millions of people regularly cross international borders, a coup, a virus, tribal clashes or a natural disaster can toss whole regions into chaos for business and vacation travelers, expatriates and volunteers. U.S.-based organizations with employees or volunteers in global hot spots rely on multilayered systems to provide up-to-the minute information, advice and, if evacuation is in order, logistical support.

For example, Pamela O'Connor, executive vice president of human resources for Catholic Relief Services, said her agency relies on a company called International SOS to provide constant risk monitoring, establish plans for a range of possible emergencies, provide security if necessary and get personnel out of a location.

Ongoing analysis has so far kept CRS employees on the job in the countries dealing with Ebola, because they work in projects that put them at low risk of encountering people infected with the usually deadly virus. CRS programs for education, nutrition and agriculture are continuing to operate, although employees have been given refresher training in disease prevention, taught about Ebola and provided with cleaning products to help fight the spread of germs. 

CRS has even expanded some programs in West Africa. An Aug. 18 press release said CRS would scale up prevention, preparedness and disaster management in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and adjacent Ghana.

"We deal with crises every day," O'Connor told Catholic News Service in a phone interview, explaining that the U.S.-based relief and development organization routinely keeps in touch with the State Department, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health and security agencies in every country where it has staff.

In any situation where employees are at risk from security or health crises, "we don't want to overreact, but we don't want to underreact either," she said. Decisions to close an office and withdraw staff are not made lightly, in part because CRS employs many local people, who likely will remain behind if employees from the U.S. or other countries are withdrawn.

In July, CRS had to temporarily close its operations in Gaza because of shelling between Israel and Gaza, she said. One CRS expatriate employee was evacuated to Jerusalem for a time, while others insisted on continuing to work from home. After a career in human resources management, O'Connor said, "I've never seen a staff so dedicated to the mission" as CRS employees around the world have been.

Calculations about safety are different even among nongovernmental organizations operating in the same regions.

Mark Andrews, vice president of volunteer and institutional engagement for Habitat for Humanity International, said the threshold for Habitat to evacuate volunteers in its Global Village programs is generally more conservative than it would be for "crisis NGO's" such as Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross. "We're more proactive than reactive," he explained.

Like CRS, Habitat uses an outside company to monitor security and health information around the clock for the dozens of countries where it has volunteers. Teams of 10-20 people travel from their home countries to spend a week or two helping build houses alongside homeowners in the developing world. The Global Village program will have more 12,000 volunteers this year across Central and South America and from Borneo to Bulgaria.

By comparison, CRS is usually worried only about its own resident staff members, who go through extensive security training. But in the developing countries where Global Village is active, Habitat manages sometimes multiple teams at a time of short-term volunteers who have little to no security training and may have never before traveled outside the U.S. or other highly developed countries.

Full Story: Ebola, war or disaster: how, when global service groups decide to flee

Source: Catholic News Service

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