Betwixt & Between

Issue #4

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Passing on the mantle of humanitarian collaboration across generations

Abstract: It is often said that we are influenced and inspired by others who demonstrate through their actions and values of what is humanly possible. In this article, the author reflects on the contribution her grandfather made to the field of humanitarian disaster preparedness and relief. Indeed, he may have been one of Latin America’s first brokers to stress the importance of collaboration in enabling vulnerable communities to build their own path to development. She argues the importance of leadership and collaboration in addressing the gap between short-term humanitarian and long-term development strategies.

Passing on the mantle of humanitarian collaboration across generations 

I, like many others, grew up believing that my grandfather was a real life action hero. After earning the title of ‘Minister of the Volcano’ in 1963, my grandfather moved from one disaster to another, creating emergency response plans for earthquakes in Nicaragua, Guatemala and el Salvador and hurricanes in Honduras and Costa Rica. Though recognised as the father of risk management in Costa Rica, he was adamant that all his achievements were the result of collaborative efforts and that his only true virtue was the ability to select and work with the right people[1].

I have now come to realise that my grandfather was one of Latin America’s first brokers, espousing the values of partnerships even before these were internationally recognised. Today Latin America is in dire need of other such leaders, who value collaboration and use this tool to address the gap between short-term disaster relief and long-term development strategies.

A. Acuna-Dengo

Jorge Manuel Dengo Obregón – Rio Macho Forest project with Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, Costa Rica

If we could succeed in changing this focus we could reduce the impact of future catastrophes, as higher-income nations typically need less relief than lower-income ones, regardless of their exposure to natural disasters. Taking the USA for instance, “more than one-third of its population lives in hazard-prone areas but only 1 percent of its land area ranks high in mortality risk.”[2] Not only can the USA better mitigate dangers, through means such as advanced warning systems, crop irrigation (to reduce the effects of draught) and sturdier buildings[3] , but it also has the income and equipment to respond swiftly when a disaster does occur. ‘Less developed’ nations, on the other hand, often lack available funds to counter disasters and have to redirect resources from long-term projects, which in turn hinders their development. Partnerships can reduce this pressure on local authorities by attracting and allocating funding in a responsible manner. Additionally, by building the capacity of these institutions to manage donations, partnerships can reduce what James Darcy refers to as ‘low absorptive capacity,’[4] and enable local communities to take charge of their own development.

As a region recognised for its close-knit families and strong community ties, Latin America has a great opportunity to tap into this social capital and strengthen the potential of partnerships. As my grandfather once stated, our villages and emergency committees need not await orders from higher authorities, but simply take action in order to protect their neighbours[5] . For this reason, conditional voucher transfers – requiring recipients to participate in positive community action (such as attending school, working or contributing to relief efforts) – are preferable to the traditional model of humanitarian aid. Through such initiatives, community members not only facilitate relief efforts, but also further their personal development. According to Robert Chambers, this is essential in low-income communities, as the poor live constantly with the risk of crisis and plan their livelihood strategies accordingly.”[6] We can no longer allow this to happen. It is our duty to empower individuals and help them to build their futures – through savings and improved sanitation measures, for instance – to create durable solutions.

Regrettably, during humanitarian crises, there is a tendency to focus on short-term needs rather than lasting development. For instance, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the urgent need for housing led to the hasty development of temporary homes which are neither affordable nor sustainable. Given that $500 million USD was spent on temporary housing[7], it is evident that funding was not the principle issue, but rather that the decisions taken lacked a long term vision. When aid comes with short-term goals and imported strategies, local institutions are often left crippled or dependant on foreign support[8], as is the case with Haiti four years after this crisis. In the same manner, many Latin American nations rely on external support, rather than building their own disaster management strategies which include development criteria. Here and now, we must bring this dependency to an end. For this, we must call upon leaders like my grandfather who recognise that the humanitarian sector can only succeed through partnerships which guide and empower community members to forge their own path to development.


Ana Acuña DelgoAna Acuña-Dengo is a recent graduate of the EOI Business School in Madrid, having completed an international master program in sustainable development and corporate responsibility. With academic and professional experience in the USA, Europe and Latin America, Ana seeks to find solutions and build bridges which combine both the traditional values of her upbringing and her western education.


[1] Cantero, M. (2001). Constructor de una época. Viva Revista de la Nacion. Retrieved from

[2] Strömberg, D. (2007). Natural disasters, economic development, and humanitarian aid. Journal of Economic Perspectives (3 ed., Vol. 21, p. 199 –222).

[3] McMillan, C. (1998). Natural disasters: Prepare, mitigate, manage. EIS: Digests of Environmental Impact Statements. CSA.

[4] Darcy, J. (2008). The MDGs and the humanitarian–development divide. Overseas Development Institute. London.

[5] Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias (2012). Planes y Operaciones – Gracias Jorge Manuel Dengo. Viva Revista de la Nacion. Retrieved from

[6] Maxwell, S., & Buchanan-Smith, M. (1994). Linking relief and development: An introduction and overview. M. Buchanan-Smith (Ed.), IDS Bulletin (4 ed., Vol. 25, pp. 2-16).

[7] Haiti Grassroots Watch (2014). HAITI: Reconstruction’s Housing Projects Still Plagued with Problems Four Years after the Earthquake. GlobalResearch Journal. Retrieved from

[8] Maxwell, S., & Buchanan-Smith, M. (1994). Linking relief and development: An introduction and overview. M. Buchanan-Smith (Ed.), IDS Bulletin (4 ed., Vol. 25, pp. 2-16).

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