Tag Archives: MSF

The ecological footprint of humanitarian aid

What environmental responsibility does the humanitarian sector have? Ins and outs, the internal magazine of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Holland, recently started a debate in the run up to the new climate treaty scheduled for late 2015. The official stance of MSF is that the organization respects established environmental law and other regulations wherever it works. Some staff argue that, as a humanitarian actor, that policy does not suffice and that it’s possible to reduce the negative ecological impact of aid without compromising assistance to beneficiaries. It has even been argued that MSF Holland, in addition to its emergency support desk, should have a sustainability desk to formulate policies for processing waste, curb emissions and promote the use of eco-friendly materials.
As my working for the humanitarian sector is aided by skills accumulated in the environmental sector, I was pleasantly surprised by the initiative to discuss this complex matter, and by the huge attention it received from MSF staff all over the world. My personal opinion is that reviewing MSF Holland’s footprint is a responsible way to determine the rate with which our humanitarian NGO is depleting natural resources that we share with others. But there’s another important reason why we should care, expertly described in the 2012 report on Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crises and Response, published by the Feinstein International Center.
As a measure for the amount of greenhouse gases MSF creates, its carbon footprint has a direct link with humanitarian crises and response in the (near) future. Global warming will change the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (major flooding events in the megadeltas of Asia and Africa, for instance). A closely related effect is the increase in societal vulnerabilities: displacement, reduced food security, impacted livelihoods and water shortages, to name just a few from the report. Harder to predict, but very probable, are shifting demographics (rapid urbanization and migration). The sustainability desk proposed by MSF staff should therefore play a role not just in curbing MSF’s footprint, but in developing humanitarian response strategies to deal with increased levels of crisis, and at a higher frequency. The 2015 climate treaty will hopefully boost awareness of the necessity of environmental action by MSF and other humanitarian actors.
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Training for Humanitarian Aid: a Learning Challenge

I have the best job in the world: I help others to learn, and make the world a better place in the process. I’m a didactical specialist working with the international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. Our assistance to people in distress is first and foremost medical and my role is to train my colleagues in giving the best quality care – as midwife, nurse, doctor, logistician or specialist in water and sanitation, as expatriate flying into the mission from Holland, India or Canada, or as a national staff member in our mission in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Papua New Guinea. My job is to find out how best to accommodate their learning.

Over the past two years, I’ve participated in a number of MOOCs on education and related subjects. My goal is to deepen my knowledge about theories, methods and best practices in training and leaning and to keep up-to-date with developments in these areas. How do we transfer knowledge, skills and behavior from one person to the other? How do we assess a learning need? How do we evaluate training and learning in systems for formal learning? And is there a way to do so in types of informal learning? What do the rapid developments in virtual learning and distance education mean for all these issues? Even after so many years of working in education, I still don’t know most of the answers to these questions and if I do, they are in desperate need of an update.

Satisfying my desire to know more about training and learning is not the biggest problem: applying that knowledge to the unique learning environment of Doctors Without Borders is a real challenge. Take, for instance, what I’ve learning in the first week of UC San Diego’s MOOC Learning How To Learn: it makes no sense to cram your head with information, it’s more effective to repeat what you’ve learned and space that repetition. It’s still better to throw in some exercise and a good night’s sleep! That’s a luxury learners feel they don’t have at Doctors Without Borders: time costs lives, and a training takes them away from their care for people who need shelter because of a war or natural disaster, who are sick and suffer from malnutrition. Staff appreciates learning opportunities because they realize they can take better care of people afterwards. But it’s impossible to stop them from cramming as much information as possible in their heads, and from sharing experiences until late at night.

Being creative in learning, as computational neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski pointed out during an interview, might actually help to overcome my challenges. At Doctors Without Borders we might not have the opportunity to build strong neural structures by spaced repetition of information during our training, but we can initiate opportunities for learners to do so afterwards, for example through distance learning. In a post-training-test we can establish what information training participants retained, and then can refer them to information sources for what they forgot.

I have a long way to go in terms of learning about learning. But I’m confident that Learning How To Learn and other educational MOOCs will help me doing a better job at that!

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