Millions are left behind in an emergency – how do we reach them?

by Alex Carle | British Red Cross Society - UK
Wednesday, 31 October 2018 09:07 GMT

A woman stands next to a house destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in Coteaux, Haiti, Oct. 22, 2016. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Local people are key in helping aid workers access remote, war-torn or unmapped crisis zones

Alex Carle is director of programmes and partnerships for the British Red Cross. 

The World Disasters Report released today by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows that millions of people who need humanitarian assistance are being ‘left behind’.

Earlier this year, the UN estimated that 134 million people would need humanitarian assistance - however only 97.4 million people are being reached this year. Some of the remaining 36.6 million will be supported by national governments or by local aid organisations, but this still means millions of people are left behind.

These ‘missing millions’ are those in greatest need - living in rural areas, unreachable conflict zones, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalised. Their invisibility to the international community can be partially explained by growing financial gaps in aid funding, but this is not just about money.

In many crises, aid workers physically cannot reach everyone in need. This could be for geographical reasons or because of conflict and insecurity. In other cases, aid groups can’t reach people because they don’t know they exist. Poor or non-existent mapping, particularly in remote areas or fast-growing urban slums, can render entire communities invisible.

So how can the humanitarian community tackle this? Local people are absolutely key in helping us get to hard-to-reach areas. In the protracted, brutal conflict in Yemen, around 12,000 Yemen Red Crescent Society (YRCS) volunteers are often the first to respond following an attack or natural disaster, even in the most remote areas.

The 2016 Grand Bargain shared commitments have provided a unique opportunity to catalyse the increased involvement of local and national actors to ensure humanitarian preparedness and response is “as local as possible, as international as necessary”.

But in times of emergencies, even local actors might have difficulty reaching people in remote areas or conflict zones. This is why we must think innovatively as a humanitarian community, to adapt and change our methods of delivering aid.


Giving people cash in an emergency has the potential to completely transform the way we work. After a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane, it might be days before roads are made passable, or planes can safely land.

Getting cash to people does not require the logistical pipelines these emergency operations often need. Cash can help us reach people more quickly, efficiently and crucially those who might be hidden in the days and even months after a disaster strikes.

In Nepal, cash has been a critical part of the Red Cross Movement’s overall emergency and recovery earthquake response. Just a couple of months after the 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 people and left more than four million people homeless, more than 41,000 families had received unconditional cash grants to buy desperately needed shelter materials.

As the provision of unconditional cash in emergencies becomes increasingly common, the Nepal experience has shown that when local markets are still functioning, cash can provide a fast and effective way to get aid directly to people in need at times when disruption and damage to key infrastructure make distribution of supplies costly and difficult, particularly in remote, mountainous areas.

But how do we know those people are there? The British Red Cross is part of Missing Maps, a volunteer-led project you can do from your mobile phone. Volunteers trace roads, plot buildings and identify natural landmarks from satellite images, creating maps that have never existed before. These maps save lives.

Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, volunteers mapped parts of Haiti that were previously unplotted in a matter of hours. These maps were used by aid workers to reach people that may otherwise not have been found for days, or even weeks.

Local communities are more important than ever in helping us reach these ‘invisible people’ - and already have the networks in place to transform how aid is delivered. Unless we utilise these new approaches to aid, people in crisis will continue to fly under our radar, with devastating consequences for those in greatest need.