Weathering the Storm: what decades of humanitarian aid taught me about real life

Lina AbiRafeh
10 min readJun 8, 2022

The world seems pretty bleak right now. We’re hardly managing one crisis before another hits. We’ve got too much on our equality and rights agenda — with most of it moving backwards.

I think back on my experience in humanitarian emergencies. Surely there’s something we can learn from those decades of work — the stuff we need to build resilience (even though I hate that word!) before an emergency hits. We can either be proactive, reactive, or ridiculously unprepared.

Let’s start with a story. On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country of Nepal. Nearly 9000 people died. 22,000 were severely injured. The most deadly earthquake the country had experienced in over 80 years. The capital city, Kathmandu, was flattened, buildings were toppled, landslides and avalanches occurred in the Himalayas. 600,000 homes were destroyed. One-third of the population was affected. Hundreds of thousands of people fell into poverty. The losses were extreme. Worse, the country continued to experience significant aftershocks — almost as strong as the original earthquake itself.

Prior to this tragedy, in early April, I had taken some time off work. I planned to spend a few weeks preparing for my upcoming TEDx talk, a talk that would summarize the work I’d been doing for the last two decades — responding to humanitarian emergencies around the world.

I had just begun staring at the blank sheet of paper on which the talk would magically appear when the earthquake happened. I dropped the pen and started to pack. The next day, I was on a plane to Nepal. And the page remained blank.

When something like this happens — a large-scale humanitarian emergency — a system is activated. I was once part of that system. My work focused specifically on sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies. Along with colleagues working on food, shelter, education, and other critical needs people face in emergencies, I was working on protecting people — women and girls in particular. That’s because, in an emergency, all the challenging things that used to exist before become much worse. All the forms of violence that women and girls face everywhere — in every country, every space, all the time — are now everywhere. All forms of violence increase — and new ones are created.

This was Nepal. And all the other countries I’ve worked in like Congo, Haiti, Chad, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka. And every single country. And the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And as a result of the COVID pandemic. No country is above this or immune to it. In this one crappy respect, we’re all the same.

Can’t you prepare before this stuff happens?!

Yes — sorta. Before I deploy, before there’s an emergency, before there’s an earthquake, before any of this, I need to be ready.

To start, there’s the physical prep. A go-bag — so you can get up, get it, and go, quite literally. It’s the stuff you know you need no matter what. Even those who don’t work in emergency settings have an idea of what they might put in their go-bag — it’s what you’d take with you if your house was on fire. Cash, medicine, passport, essential supplies, the things you need, the things you absolutely can’t live without. You might not have it ready, but you know what it is.

I’d bring things like a sleeping bag, a headlamp, granola bars, tampons, maybe even hot sauce. For two decades, I was always packed, go-bag at the ready. (Today, my suitcases are out of sight, and I savor the sweet relief of going nowhere!)

It’s not just about the physical contents of the bag. Sure, there’s a war-weary duffel bag sitting by the door. But it’s also the mental preparation. My go-bag was just as much mental as it was physical. I had to think through what I would need for myself, the tools to operate, the calm to maintain in crisis, the task ahead — and how to get it done as best I could.

So there I am. The earthquake happens, my go-bag is ready and I fly off the next day. At 30,000 feet, I’m reading about Nepal. I’m absorbing information, understanding who’s there, who’s doing what, what the country looks like, what the landscape is like. Nepal is largely rural, and rural areas were severely affected and nearly inaccessible. How would we reach those areas? What organizations were already there?

So, what happens?

A group of key agencies who work in humanitarian emergencies — the Inter-Agency Standing Committee — decide how serious the situation is, and designate a level (one, two, or three), with each level corresponding to a protocol to follow.

Level Three is where I lived — global emergencies requiring all the effort, energy, and human and financial resources we’ve got. So it’s all hands on deck, as they say. No regrets, as we say. Meaning, better to get too many people out there than too few. Get everyone out, roll up your sleeves, and start doing the work.

And there’s money. Depending on the emergency. Donors can dump into the pooled Central Emergency Response Fund, accessible (through somewhat complicated bureaucratic procedures) so we can do the work we know needs doing.

There’s a coordination team managing all of this, meeting every day in order to understand the situation, what’s happening, who needs help, and how we’re going to help them.

What does this mean for women?

In an emergency, bad things get worse. And working on sexual violence prevention and response is already a bad thing — even on a “good day”. In fact, there are no good days. Even without emergencies, this — the fact that sexual violence even exists — is an emergency for women.

In emergency contexts, I have to work with other actors to ensure that we are doing everything we can to prevent violence and mitigate risk. For instance, are shelters safe? Do women and girls have a space for themselves? Is food distributed in a way that ensures that women aren’t going to be exploited accessing their share? Are bathrooms safe, lit, lockable? And so on. Incidents happen when we don’t pay attention to those things.

I also would bring together the wide range of actors working on sexual violence to help them coordinate efforts. What are we doing? Who is doing it? Where? And — most importantly — what work is not being done? Leave no one behind.

What’s the plan?

As a retired humanitarian, I think of myself as perpetually living in an emergency. I’m always putting out fires, even if I’m not on the frontlines anymore. We all have our own frontlines — and we might as well be prepared for them.

For instance — a global pandemic. Who predicted that?!

So just in case you need it, here’s my crisis management plan:

  1. Coordinate before a crisis.

Get the right people together, and have conversations, imagine all scenarios. If you’re not speaking to the people who are out there doing the work, you’re missing a lot of essential information. And sometimes that helps you better prepare for these kinds of crises. Don’t think this just happens to “other people” or “over there” — we’ve got emergencies aplenty right here.

2. Pre-empt what you can, and pre-position what you need.

For instance, I always go to the bathroom before I go anywhere, because I know I can’t function in an emergency with a full bladder. Besides, that might be the day I’m stuck, stranded, lost — the last thing I need is to wonder where the nearest bathroom is. You might have other critical needs to pre-empt, but my small-bladder friends hear me on this one!

Pre-positioning your supplies means to know what is — and isn’t — available, what’s urgent, and where you’ll get it. Don’t hoard toilet paper. In the field we talk about pre-positioning medical supplies or nutrition packets for children — that type of stuff.

3. Pay attention to early warnings.

Emergencies sometimes catch us off guard, but most of the time, we can see them coming. There are signs. Working on women’s rights means I do this through the lens of women. Pay attention to women’s presence — or absence — in public spaces. Are there less women on the street? Do things feel sort of creepy after dark? Are there lots of idle people loitering? An increase in petty crime? An increase in unemployment? More civil unrest?

Those are signs of a deteriorating security situation. Know what those are for where you are in your community so you’re prepared, and so you’re not waiting until things are at their worst to galvanize into action.

4. Know — and assess — your risks

Understand what you’re dealing with ahead of time — like the stuff I was reading on the plane to Nepal. Knowing the situation and the risks helps you know how to take action.

Calmly absorbing a snapshot of the situation means you’re calmly able to put it to use. There’s going to be lots of information — learn how to quickly distill what’s important. Ultimately, we want to take action. And we want to avoid further risk. We’re not passive observers to our own emergency. We want to fix it — safely.

5. Follow a chain of command

Who’s in charge? Someone has to be — so we might as well figure that out early.

6. Agree on the response

In the field, we have standard operating procedures and response action plans. We all need these in our daily lives. They are agreements on how we’re going to work and what that might look like. What is our response? It helps to get on the same page before an emergency hits.

7. Coordinate and consult

There are lots of people out there who know what they’re doing — tap into the expertise on the ground. They’re already out there doing the work. Find out how to reinforce — rather than undermine — their efforts.

8. Communicate!

In an emergency, there’s information flying all over the place, some of it contradictory. Best to know who’s in the know, and make sure everyone listens to them. On the inside, you can either listen to a clear voice, or all talk at once. And what will you communicate to those on the outside? Who’s got the final say — and what can they say?

9. Ensure sufficient resources

Human and financial resources have to be at the ready. There’s slow movement — or no movement — without money.

10. Get some training

Do we need any special skills that might be helpful in emergencies? Get those ahead of time, and be ready to put them to use.

11. Recognize when there is recovery

Know when things are returning to normal, and what that looks like. For my work with women in emergencies, the crisis doesn’t end when the emergency ends. When the ground has stopped shaking and the guns are silent, pay attention. Violence against women doesn’t stop — it continues for months, years, decades after a crisis.

Look at Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, rape crisis centers were overwhelmed with calls and people and requests for support. For years to follow, cases of intimate partner violence continued to increase. They are still high.

So, even if recovery is complete and reconstruction is done, and it’s business as usual for many, that might not be true for some. It’s clearly not true for women.

12. Review what happened — and learn from it

An emergency post-mortem helps us examine how we did, what we did, and what worked — and didn’t. Be honest about the hiccups — they are there. Addressing them provides an opportunity to build better systems next time.

So what?!

I used to think my skills on the frontlines of humanitarian emergencies were not particularly transferable to the real world. Wrong! It’s about how you show steadiness, how you don’t panic. How you don’t show — or even feel — fear. Fear is paralysis. Park it. Same goes for worry. Save it for later. In the moment, inhale, exhale and get to work.

I also learned to adapt — quickly. And to do whatever needs doing. Leaders are made and unmade in these moments. I have seen it. And experienced it. And, I’ve felt it within myself.

At the same time, you’re not a hero. Don’t fly solo unless you absolutely have to. Build a team, and manage your expectations.

Clear your head and focus. If you can only do one thing, let it be the RIGHT one. Don’t take it all on, and don’t act too quickly. Our humanitarian mandate — do no harm — tells us that we must do whatever needs doing, but don’t make it worse. It’s a low bar, with a good message. Especially because lives are at stake — literally.

Reframe the crisis as an opportunity. Think about what might be possible in this circumstance, and let curiosity drive you. Yes, these are grave tragedies. Lives are lost, homes are lost, livelihoods are lost — things will never be as they were. But sometimes there are opportunities that emerge from crises — having hope will make a difference.

What’s the alternative? Total despondency? It’s hard enough to feel like we ever actually accomplish anything, but we need to muster the strength to get up every day and do it again. Every day. And that’s what I did for two decades.

So back to Nepal… and a few weeks into my stay, another massive quake happened — magnitude 7.3. So now I was there in the middle of it, not watching it, but actively living it.

We’ve all been in those kinds of situations, whether the earthquake is literal or figurative.

I did finally deliver my TEDx talk, written on the plane as I flew out of Nepal. Start where you stand, I said.

And even now, in the middle of our own emergencies. Our lives are a series of earthquakes — minor, we hope — but meaningful to us nonetheless. As a feminist and an activist, I exist at the intersection of comfort and chaos — never actually being able to say yes, the job is done.

And my mental go-bag is at the ready. I hope none of us ever really need to use it.

[This stuff comes from a speech I gave in 2021 called “Weathering the Storm.”]



Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!