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Anatomy of a Crisis 004: Deadly Policy- How the Stovepipe Methodology Leads to Disaster
From the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake to the genesis of the Iraq war, adherence to what is called the stovepipe method is chief among the culprits of a confused disaster response. Stovepipe methodology refers to the practice where organizations and individuals utilize isolated systems of communications to transmit the information they have gathered, their assessments of ongoing situations, and their needs to their respective headquarters without any information sharing.
Imagine a wildland firefighter fighting a fire in California who is directed by the head of the Forest Service in Washington, DC instead of with the firefighters on the ground around him/her. Despite the reality that isolating their communications makes their job infinitely more challenging, this is the norm in international disaster response.
This method limits crosstalk among and within organizations in the affected area and seldom allows for the development of a common operating map from which to more effectively plan and implement response measures. This tactic is unfortunately prevalent among NGOs and governments because it is most efficient in the short-term and prevents the sharing of information with peers potentially in competition for resources.
However, as a result, stakeholders at the apex of the decision-making process often receive fragmented information that may or may not be accurate. Decisions are often made without fully contextualized information or incorporating all the necessary information, leading to less informed and effective decisions or even stagnate decision making. As a result, critical plans remain undeveloped and resources which may have an immediate impact on an affected area are unused or misused during the most critical moments of an emergency scenario.
On the Ground
Disaster managers often find themselves situated in the affected region and unable to effectively marshal resources due to a lack of shared information. They often have little awareness of the resources available to them either through peer organizations or locally available support mechanisms. Organizations rarely reach out to neighboring countries that share similar topography or climate that are natural allies for coordinated risk mitigation strategies. Even neighboring field offices from the same organizations often don’t coordinate.
Since they are unable to take advantage of existing materials and services that other organizations have ready, redundancies proliferate and resources are repeatedly wasted. Additionally, a lack of information often means a lack of clarity on what areas regions need assistance most, often preventing aid from penetrating into rural areas or areas that do not have an NGO node in close proximity. Compounding issues, all this confusion and the resulting criticism about wasted resources erodes donor nations’ confidence and has an impact on funding for future crises.
Periodically, select organizations can leverage historic and habitual working relationships with other groups to solve a problem. However, such relationships are limited in number and suffer from institutional atrophy if not continually utilized.
At the Headquarters
On the other end of things, those in institutional headquarters who are charged with sorting all the information and providing an accurate representation to their respective decision-making bodies often become frustrated with the process of putting the puzzle together. They often lack a standardized methodology for collecting information within their own organization or sharing between departments.
Compounding the problem, organizations use their own information collection methods which often are not translatable to other stakeholders making information sharing more logistically challenging. Language barriers, classification issues, cultural norms, different philosophical approaches, and other seemingly minor gaps can derail entire efforts to collaborate. The lack of a common frame of reference can result in a decision to simply wait until more details become apparent. However, given that time is the most crucial factor in a crisis, this delay can be hugely detrimental to an effective response.
The UN, an enormous institution that focuses on a wide variety of interrelated issues but lacks real coordination, is a great example of the stovepipe issue. Despite acknowledging the intersectionality of so many of the different areas they work on, UN efforts and goals for peacebuilding, security, human rights, disaster response, development, and more are frequently not harmonized or executed with a focus on intersectionality. UN entities are too narrowly focused, and meaningful collaboration across entities is rare. This doesn’t just slow down responses in critical moments; it is an active barrier in developing comprehensive plans ahead of time. Ultimately, disasters are only as disastrous as we allow them to be. Planning and response are everything.
The Path Forward
Although little substantive progress has been made, the international community has not entirely neglected this issue. In fact, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) and subsequent Sendai Accords have some valuable recommendations contained therein. However, these plans suffer from a lack of clarity and fail to provide a realistic road map to achieve the kind of security umbrella the global community requires for the twenty-first century. In addition, there is a glaring lack of emphasis on providing resiliency to rural communities. In short, these accords identify some viable standards of practice that are suitable for integration, but still are restricted by their promotion of an overly complex structure that hampers the dissemination of information.
Clearly, without a standardized doctrinal approach to problems, those in areas affected by disasters and those interested in responding to an incident will continue to waste resources based on inaccurate information. In order to preserve resources and, more importantly, lives, the international community must develop more robust internal communication mechanisms. Undeniably, “stovepiping” information directly up to headquarters with minimal information sharing on the ground simply is not cutting it. One effective way to bypass these issues could be to produce a knowledge commons with a shared map of information on resources, including everything from where medical facilities are located to local UNHCR guides to Civil Aviation Authorities’ contact information.
When information is life or death, we cannot afford for outdated organizational structures to impede our ability to respond to disaster effectively. At the end of the day, we either need to dramatically improve the exchange of information between agencies and entities or be willing to accept that the responsibility for continued global suffering is partially in our hands.