What responding to emergencies in Canada and West Africa taught me

By Sarah Parisio, Rapid Response Manager
My job, in a nutshell, involves supporting people impacted by disasters through leading teams of fellow humanitarians who respond to emergencies in Canada and around the world. Before I get ahead of myself, let me begin with this: I am always learning from and humbled by the resilience shown by communities which have been impacted by a disaster. I hope to share, with this short post, how I brought with me skills developed through responding to emergencies in Canada to an international context and what new knowledge I brought back home in return.

Emergency response
Sarah Parisio walking with 3 Red Cross members on a flooded streetRecently, I spent a few months assisting the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) regional delegation in Dakar, Senegal. 

During my time there, I helped The Gambia Red Cross, Senegalese Red Cross and Mauritanian Red Crescent respond to floods in their local areas.  Although there were many differences from what I know in Canada, there were many similarities also.

Impacted populations
In West Africa and around the world, people impacted by disasters have similar basic and immediate needs: food, shelter, water, health services, psychosocial supports, and more.  They also have fundamental rights that form some of the guiding principles of our work:
  1. Human dignity;
  2. Equal access for those most at risk;
  3. Participation in decision-making processes and activities that affect their lives;
  4. Safety from harm.
Sarah Parisio wearing a Red Cross vest and looking at flooding devastationThe common thread of human need and experience is bigger than boundaries of international borders.  For example, babies are born in the aftermath of disasters everywhere. Tragically, some families are torn apart, while others stay together amidst the shock of being displaced from their homes due to events like flooding. Also, the complexities of institutional violence, trauma, armed conflict, and repeated displacement intensify the needs of affected populations. This is true everywhere.

That said, a lot changes from one place to the next. To name a few differences, availability of resources, extent of impact and scope of climate events, threats to security, and political, legal, and cultural norms are dramatically distinct. In order to make sure the West African response provided the help that was needed, where it was needed involved intentional coordination with local partners to apply humanitarian standards and principles in innovative ways. It also involved adopting simple, practical, and replicable solutions to meet urgent needs.

Mobilizing the power of humanity
In Canadian and international responses, volunteers are the heart of our humanitarian work. Having worked extensively with volunteer teams in Canada to respond to local emergencies like housefires, floods and health emergencies, I was more prepared to join forces with the volunteers I met in West Africa who were responding to their own local disasters than I thought.

In West Africa, my role was to boost the capacity of local teams, lending a hand with the local response. This is where a willingness to listen and learn proved to be incredibly important. Adapting to local socio-cultural practices and navigating team dynamics in a new environment proved to be a very rewarding experience. Problem-solving approaches were shared, relationships were built, and the strengths of the team were used to respond to the floods caused by high monsoon rains in certain regions, like The Gambia’s capital, Banjul.

Words of encouragement
The Sydney team - hurricane Fiona responsePractically speaking, the challenge in humanitarian work in Canada and around the world making sure help reaches those who need it most, while working alongside communities, local partners and individuals.  

In my attempt to transfer and apply skills and knowledge from Canadian emergency operations to international ones, I came to realize that soft skills make all the difference. In true generalist fashion, this came as a relief to me.

I returned to Canada ready to explore ways to strengthen these skills. My focus now is to step outside of my comfort zone regularly both in my professional and personal life. I learned that it is through encountering difference and transferring knowledge to new settings that I will continue to refine the skills that have been so valuable in emergency response in Canada and abroad.

Sarah’s deployment to Senegal was made possible thanks to support from the Government of Canada, which also supports the recruitment, training and availability of rapid response managers.

Related articles:
Meet Denis, a volunteer supporting communities affected by Hurricane Fiona
Behind the scenes with Red Cross' Kate Stene

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