Standby partners’ crucial role in emergency response

February 2018

Juba, South Sudan. Amirkambiz Hamedanizadeh, WHO Public Health Officer, Standby Partner Norwegian Refugee Council.
Amirkambiz Hamedanizadeh, WHO Public Health Officer, Standby Partner Norwegian Refugee Council.
WHO/South Sudan

Health emergencies can come with little or no warning. Saving lives and preventing the spread of a disease or the fallout of a natural disaster means getting relief resources onsite quickly. Crucially, this includes skilled and experienced personnel.

“Extra personnel must be in place quickly to support WHO’s emergency work, but emergencies can be a difficult time to identify the right staff and negotiate contracts”, said Dr Richard Brennan, Director of Emergency Management Operations at WHO.

For WHO one way of plugging this emergency skills gap has been via its Standby Partners Programme (SBP). This was set up using lessons learnt during the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.

The SBP links WHO with a group of quasi-Governmental organizations involved in emergency and relief work. They maintain their own rosters of experienced, trained, professionals ready to work on emergencies at short notice, including in challenging locations.

“Standby personnel have been critical in supporting WHO’s response operations to emergencies in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan and the Ebola disease outbreak in West Africa,” said Dr Brennan.

The deployment system has been designed for speed and simplicity. A WHO country office makes a request to their colleagues at headquarters in Geneva, who review the request and pass it on to the Standby Partners. The Partners respond within 48 hours, providing a list of people who are available to deploy within 72 hours. This means that (assuming no visa issues), an expert can be onsite in less than a week.

Deployments are initially for three to six months, although they can extend up to two years by mutual agreement.

“The SBP gives us access to a broader range of skill sets than we have in-house. This enables us to make a rapid, flexible, scalable response when emergencies happen,” said Indu Ahluwalia, Technical Officer for Standby Partners at WHO.

“For example, as part of recent emergency deployments, we have managed to deploy experts in climate change, information management and data organization, which we couldn’t have done from our own staff.”

For WHO it’s not just the speed with which specialist emergency help is available that makes the SBP critical in effective surge responses. It also helps to plug a funding gap because the costs of the experts – salary, per diem, travel and insurance – are met by the Standby Partners. Currently nine organizations have signed up to the programme, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID) as a donor partner.

The SBP organizations also benefit because their personnel and contractors get international-level experience, training and skills transfer.

“The surge deployment was a great experience” said Joe Swan, who was deployed for six months by RedR Australian to work on the health response to the Syria crisis. “I was very lucky to be involved in an array of projects. The work was meaningful and I really feel as if I was able to make an impact.”

The value of the SBP scheme can be seen in the way it has grown since its introduction. In 2013, the first year, there were 11 deployments. By 2016 the SBP was providing expert, on-the-ground support in 18 countries with more than 213 months of expert work, and assistance worth more than US$4.2 million. In 2017, experts from nine different specialist areas were deployed for 223 ‘man months’ across 16 countries and USD $3.35 million worth of “gratis” support was provided by the partners.

Current Standby Partners

  • DSS WATER (Netherlands Enterprise Agency)
  • DEMA (Danish Emergency Management Agency)
  • DFID (as donor partner)
  • iMMAP
  • MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency)
  • NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council)
  • RedR Australia
  • Save the Children, UK