Maverick Citizen


Gift of the Givers provides a glimpse into the complex world of disaster relief at Cape Town conference

Gift of the Givers provides a glimpse into the complex world of disaster relief at Cape Town conference
Gift of the Givers search-and-rescue teams assist in the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquake, February 2023. Gift of the Givers provides aid packages in Malawi following Cyclone Freddy, March 2023. Gift of the Givers provides food hampers to flood-affected communities around the lower Orange River in the Northern Cape, February 2023. (Photos: Supplied)

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a humanitarian disaster? South African nonprofit Gift of the Givers provided insight into the world of disaster relief at a recent conference in Cape Town.

A humanitarian disaster is an event or series of events that threaten the health, safety and wellbeing of a community, either due to natural causes – a cyclone, tsunami, earthquake – or human-made ones, such as armed conflict.

Gift of the Givers has provided humanitarian assistance in over 45 countries since it was founded 30 years ago. It provides both medical and non-medical aid, and is the most complete disaster-response team in the world, according to Dr Kathryn Chu, director of the Centre for Global Surgery at Stellenbosch University.

“In a time when much of the world views South Africa and its people as those who take rather than give, Gift of the Givers has shown the world South Africa has something positive to offer,” she said.

“Providing assistance in humanitarian disasters is not taught in medical school … The local, national and international response needed in each crisis is unique and depends on its nature and the severity.”

Chu was speaking at the Gift of the Givers conference on “Preparedness for Humanitarian Disasters”, held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 27 and 28 May. The event aimed to show what happens behind the scenes in a disaster, and was attended by about 350 medical and other professionals.

Search-and-rescue teams

The Gift of the Givers team is normally deployed within 24 to 48 hours of being notified of a disaster, according to Ahmed Bham, disaster coordinator and team leader at the nonprofit. It is during this time that the first response teams will arrive on the scene and achieve the greatest impact.

In the case of the Turkey-Syria earthquake earlier this year, the South African team was the 17th out of 160 to be deployed, he said. In the first hours after a disaster, there is often limited information and a lot of uncertainty about the situation on the ground, according to Qasim Bhorat, a disaster response coordinator with Gift of the Givers.

“It’s rapid action, rapid decision-making … and all hands on deck,” he said. “Anyone who’s been on a mission knows that you can prepare as much as you want, and you can get to the other side and suddenly you’re back to square one.”

He gave the example of an intervention in Indonesia in 2018 when Gift of the Givers’ search-and-rescue team arrived to assist in the aftermath of an earthquake. However, the government refused permission for search-and-rescue operations, so the team had to switch to providing only medical assistance.

There are four main phases behind responding to a disaster: planning; activation; response; and deactivation, according to Bham.

In terms of planning, Gift of the Givers had created a database of specialist volunteers, and invested in specialised equipment such as live locators. Between missions, the search-and-rescue team would continue to meet and ensure equipment was maintained.

“Our inventory is very important, and … our stakeholder engagement,” he said.

Paul Chetty, team leader at Gift of the Givers, puts the pool of search-and-rescue volunteers for disaster relief missions at 121 people.

Activation occurred in response to different events-monitoring tools, including the news and search-and-rescue info-sharing groups, said Bham. A team is selected from volunteers, placed on standby and medically screened, while documents such as passports and visas are checked. Disciplines within the team can include search-and-rescue personnel, advanced life support practitioners, medical specialists and members of the K9 unit.

“The important aspect in our response [phase] is when you arrive at the scene … you can’t just go and start rescuing people – you need to set up a base of operations. You need to make sure your team is taken care of … set up a communications system… make sure your kitchen is sorted out,” said Bham.

“Safety is the most important for the team members, and you need to first look after yourselves.”

When entering another country, respect for local laws, medical professionals and disaster management agencies was a priority, he added.

A search-and-rescue team will only operate for up to 10 days due to the intensity of the work. Depending on the nature of the disaster, another team – either search-and-rescue or medical – may be deployed to replace the deactivated team.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Imtiaz Sooliman reflects on disaster relief, human resilience and the commitment to helping others

‘The who’

The most important element of disaster intervention should be in place before the disaster occurs, according to Gift of the Givers CEO Dr Imtiaz Sooliman.

“It deals with the personality, the temperament… the ethics, the professionalism, the willingness to commit, to dedicate, and to respond without fear,” he said.

While Gift of the Givers has never lost a volunteer in the field, Sooliman emphasised that some of the situations they entered were life-altering and held the real possibility of loss of life. 

According to Bhorat, the uncertain nature of the environments encountered by disaster-relief teams means only two things can be certain: “the who” and “the why”.

“‘The who’ for me is the character and personality of each and every one of the volunteers who go on missions. These are people that I will trust, not because of their qualifications or CV, but rather because of knowing [their character] first-hand through missions.”

The “why” is captured in Gift of the Givers’ guiding principle, he concluded. 

“Best among people are those who benefit mankind.” DM


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