In the aftermath of the floods in Germany, traditional humanitarian challenges emerge

Listening to a 6-minute-long piece on German public radio Deutschlandfunk Kultur reminded me how truly global humanitarian responses have become.
Journalist Vivien Leue visited the Ahrtal region that was hit by recent floods and spoke to residents and major charities aiding people about the challenges of rebuilding after July's disaster. A recent article by Deutsche Welle,
German flood victims left traumatized as climate crisis looms, also highlights some of the key humanitarian issues that are emerging now.

Even though the radio piece is relatively short I was struck how familiar many of the issues sounded compared to the discussions humanitarian and development experts have had for many years and after many crises.

Waiting for money
More than 430 million Euros have been raised for the victims of the flooding and one of the key questions about two months after the events that killed 103 people remains on how to connect people waiting for aid with the substantial donations.
“It won’t be in cash anyway” remarks a resident, hinting at another commonly discussed humanitarian issue: Cash is king/queen.

People want cash
As bills start to pile up and equipment or builders need to be paid, small emergency cash hand-outs get quickly exhausted. Trusting people with cash has always been a contentious topic for tabloid media or conservative politicians when in fact the evidence is clear that people almost always spend cash well.

Local self-help initiatives face centralized bureaucracy

One local initiative that collects donations (from washing machines to steel-toe shoes most donations seems quite useful and do not fall into the
“stuff we don't want category) has applied for support so that money from the central fund can pay the rent for their local shop/warehouse, but “we have been waiting for a couple of weeks now to hear from them” as the volunteer explains.

Coordination takes times
“Coordination takes time”, says a spokesperson for Malteser Hilfsdienst and adds “we don’t want to pay twice or thrice here and nothing there”-classic challenges of aid coordination, often mocked in memes or humanitarian anecdotes.

How useful are psychologists who walk from door to door?

Another well-known challenge in humanitarian reconstruction is that services sometimes do not respond to local demands or are well-intentioned, but culturally inappropriate.
While residents seem to appreciate the psycho-social support that some of the organizations offer, questions emerged as to how psychologist can establish a relationship with traumatized children for example and how a long-term system of support can be established.

A different scale

Many organizations are also not used to the scale of the affected region and are used to much smaller-scale interventions in Germany. They mention long-term support and a willingness to stay for “as long as we are needed”, but global experience tells us that parts of the “humanitarian caravan” move on relatively quickly after the initial emergency response wraps up.

As I wrote in the beginning, this was just a short radio feature, but still quite revealing how quickly traditional post-emergency and humanitarian challenges emerge in, to use one of those journalistic tropes, “one of the richest countries in the world”. So what are the key points that I take away from this?

Perhaps not really surprisingly, the climate crisis is already redefining traditional humanitarian dynamics. The “North-South” dynamic is replaced by truly global challenges, which raises many important questions for traditional organizations on how to align
local and global work.
Seeing a temporary water treatment plant in Germany brings some of the (stereo)typical post-emergency visuals “home”.

The expertise of “international” humanitarians will be needed “at home” and organizations need to add them to their local teams and volunteer groups
, especially on “softer” topics such as fostering participatory dialogue, supporting vulnerable groups to be seen and heard in the reconstruction process and making sure such processes are culturally appropriate

In addition to concrete support that “global” experiences can bring to rural Germany, the climate crisis is an opportunity to address some of the underlying structural inequalities, linking traditional “development cooperation” work to crisis prevention work on the local, national or EU-level. From connecting citizens’ aid groups to fostering solidarity and exchanges on crisis prevention or resilience, new forms of cooperation could emerge.

When development cooperation took off, sending a German car mechanic to a counter-part in Ghana was one of the first humble attempts to connect people; decades later, many volunteer programs now include a “South-North” exchange component and/or anti-racism trainings and discussions on how to “decolonize” aid. Perhaps the future will be even more “de-centered” when local politicians or bureaucrats from Germany visit their counterparts in the Global South to learn about their approaches to mitigate the climate crisis and discuss our interlinked fates and the inequalities that have enabled the climate crisis.


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