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A better way of doing good

When humanitarian aid organizations touch ground in war-torn or disaster-ravaged countries, they're  going in with the best of intentions, eager to help in any way they can. The reality, says Kirsten Johnson, a professor in McGill's Faculty of Medicine, is that poor coordination and a lack of training  mean that these efforts frequently do more harm than good.

“It's naive to think that we can keep sending people into these situations with no formal training or experience,” Johnson says. “You wouldn't go into a new job like that, so why is humanitarian aid any different, especially when the stakes are so much higher?”

Johnson is the founder of McGill's Humanitarian Studies Initiative (HSI), which is aiming to change the way we lend a helping hand. HSI provides across-the-board training to medical residents, graduate students and mid-career professionals who are interested in relief work, giving them the know-how they need to apply their skills to humanitarian situations – and to do it well.

Elements of the program include courses, a three-day disaster simulation, and a one- to two-month field placement. The placements provide participants with the opportunity to test what they've learned, often resulting in innovative programs and practices that have a deep and lasting impact.

That's exactly what happened when three McGill residents travelled to Haiti as part of the program in March 2010, following the devastating January earthquake. Upon arrival, they set up a much needed field hospital for victims of the disaster. One of the three, Robin Cardamore, remarked on the need for better medical follow-up,and developed a patient tracking system that health care workers in the region could access from their cellphones. The system helped reunite family members who had been separated in the aftermath of the quake.

For an example of aid gone wrong, you need look no further than the response to the genocide in Rwanda, says Johnson. Humanitarian organizations flooded the country, but there was little coordination within or between them, and ground staff lacked the critical skills, knowledge and guidance to make informed decisions.

“Aid ended up being provided to some of the people who had committed the genocide, which allowed them to regroup and rebuild,” says Johnson. What's more, the health risks associated with refugee camps weren't anticipated, and the cholera outbreak that ensued killed thousands. Similar issues now plague relief efforts in Haiti, but stories like Cardamore's show that with the right knowledge and proper preparation, aid workers are better equipped to identify problems and develop solutions.

The ultimate goal of the Humanitarian Studies Initiative is to improve standards for the delivery of aid, so that the people who matter – the victims on the ground – get the right kind of help, right when they need it. “We have an obligation to ensure that if we are going to provide assistance, that it is the best, most sustainable and strategically geared assistance possible,” says Johnson. “If we go into these situations with no plan and no real targeted sets of skills and knowledge, then we are no longer really helping.”

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