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DEC needs to be ready to react

This opinion piece is over 5 years old

Huw Owen talks about being prepared to react when international emergencies happen

The Disasters Emergency Committee in Scotland is delighted at the rapid response from across Scotland for the Indonesian tsunami, raising more than £1.5 million in just two weeks.

It’s a strange occupation, preparing for nearly a year for the real reason you took the job. As the DEC’s first external relations manager in Scotland my responsibility is to ensure that when there is a major international disaster or crisis, the DEC’s six member agencies here rapidly co-ordinate their response. We mobilise to alert the Scottish public of the urgent need for help and hopefully get them to donate to fund vital supplies of emergency humanitarian aid to devastated communities.

The long-held reputation and effectiveness of the DEC and its 14 UK members is based in large part on the unique relationship we have with the main UK broadcasters, the BBC, ITV (STV), Sky, Channel 4 and Channel 5. This relationship is sustained by the relatively rare occasions that we collectively ask the broadcasters to give us free air time to make a joint public appeal. Whilst there are serious emergencies happening seemingly every week around the world, there is of course a risk of compassion fatigue and diminishing the effectiveness of this life saving coalition if we ask too often.

Huw Owen
Huw Owen

So, having joined the DEC last year, it was just over two weeks ago that the reports emerging from the shattered infrastructure of Sulawesi slowly brought home the terrible destruction wrought by the huge earthquake and tsunami that slammed into the city of Palu a few days earlier. The DEC leadership met, agreed with the broadcasters that there would be an appeal, starting on 4 October. On the BBC, the historian, Dan Snow and on ITV, the actor, Jason Isaacs issued a rallying call for support from the British public.

Their narration accompanied truly distressing images of the force of nature at its worst. More than 2,000 people have been killed, more than double that may never be found, buried in rubble and earth that turned into liquid mud. 10,000 people have been injured and 200,000 need urgent humanitarian assistance. In disasters of this size and scale, that means thousands of gallons of clean water, basic food, medicines and other health supplies. Imagine trying to find shelter and support for the people of a city the size of Aberdeen, or every household across the Highlands if they’d been made homeless overnight in a storm.

Back in Scotland, working with the Scottish DEC agencies, Tearfund, British Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief, our mission for the past two weeks has been to keep the public focus on the crisis and keep the donations coming in.

I’m delighted to report that we have lived up to our DEC motto, Together We’re Stronger. With limited resources available at short notice, staff from across our members have for the first time put together a Scottish digital appeal video, with the author and comedian, Susan Calman. This video along with other strong communications material has given the appeal here more relevance, particularly to those we increasing need to reach on their laptops or mobile phones and make it simple for them to donate.

We have also had incredible support from across the public and private sector. The Scottish Government rapidly released more than £200,000 from their Humanitarian Emergency Fund, a number of Scotland’s leading companies have either donated directly or encouraged their staff or customers to get behind us. With 650 Indonesian students currently studying in Scotland, students in many campuses across the country are rapidly organising their own fundraisers. Once again civic society here has shown Scotland has a big heart in keeping with the country’s proud history of humanitarianism.

Huw Owen is external relations manager in Scotland for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)