“Recovery soccer”, A new game for GO and NGO

“Recovery soccer”, A new game for GO and NGO

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Haitian Resources Development Foundation - www.hrdf.org - June 7, 2010 

On April 11, Le Nouvelliste kindly published our article concerning relations between the Haitian government (GOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the year and a half of post-disaster response, January 2010 to the present.  http://www.lenouvelliste.com/articleforprint.php?PubID=1&ArticleID=89982. The article compared these relations to a game of “Disaster Soccer” where teams of GOs and NGOs run up and down the field, vigorously kick the ball, but seldom score goals. Further, these teams have no referees or rulebook.  The result is that fouls are committed and bones are broken.  In a sense, “Disaster Soccer” turns skilled athletes into brutal gladiators.

Many fans of the home team – particularly, the earthquake refugees who live in camps – do not like to watch a scoreless game.  They don’t enjoy highly-paid, celebrities who merely kick and run, push and shove, escape penalties, and so on.  These fans want to see goals made, in this case, their freedom from camps, and their resettlement to safe and secure locations.  Likewise, fans of the visiting team – the world of foreign charities, donors and international banks – are tired of watching disaster soccer.  They are losing interest and are not buying many tickets.  Clearly, the national game needs to change.  Haiti needs to begin playing “recovery soccer.”

Recovery Soccer requires referees and a rulebook.  In post-disaster response, referees are the essential third force on the field.  Like the GOs and NGOs, referees are skilled players and have distinctive uniforms.  But they have a different purpose.  They run among the teams without interfering, they are responsible for conducting a fair and honest game, they keep track of time, they confirm goals, and they decide disputes between teams.  As any student of sociology knows, a system with three legs is more stable than a two-legged system.  Therefore, it is logical that recovery soccer should have three elements – GOs, NGOs and referees – not just two teams alone on the field.

From where do referees come?  To answer that, it is important to look at the big picture:  The game of recovery soccer is played all over the world, wherever disasters occur.  Looking at the past fifty years or so, one could say that a World Recovery Soccer League (WRSL) exists, where several games are simultaneously played every week of the year.  Right now, the games concern the aftermath of earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, nuclear accidents in Japan, wildfires in Arizona, tornadoes and floods in the American Midwest and so on.  All are closely watched and monitored on worldwide websites such as globaldisasterwatch.blogspot.com  

The World Recovery Soccer League is a necessary response to the unfortunate but constant collision of humanity with natural forces, something that HRDF has written and taught about since the Haitian earthquake last year.  The League is big business.  The annual budget is billions of dollars.  It involves hundreds of thousands of players (disaster workers) and millions of spectators (disaster survivors).  Much of these resources are needed to insure that the Game of Recovery does not itself descend into a Game of Disaster.

Even in the most advanced nations, a disaster can overwhelm the home team.  When this happens, recovery requires what might be called a “non-scheduled game” with a visiting team.  The home team, however, may not usually have a choice of visiting team.  In other words, it takes what it can get.  The visiting team could be strong or weak, experienced or naïve, friendly or hostile.  It could be a complete team or just a fragment of what is needed to play.  It could be a team that is in good health or one that has sick players.  It might be assembled in a professional and orderly manner, with adequate leadership, equipment and supplies.  Or it might be randomly and hurriedly assembled, filled with whomever and whatever is available.

This has significant consequences.  When the disaster game clock runs out, says after six months, poorly-matched teams will have produced few goals if any, and made many fouls.  The spectators will not be satisfied; in fact, some may have died during the game.  On the other hand, well-matched and well-behaved teams accompanied by referees and a rulebook will have made several goals and few fouls.  The spectators will be satisfied, and all will have survived.

The rules of conventional game of soccer as played internationally and codified by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) are specified at http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/lawsofthegame/   There are seventeen basic laws governing the game: the field of play, the ball, the number of players, the players’ equipment, the referee, the assistant referees, the duration of the match, the start and restart of play, the ball in and out of play, the method of scoring, offside, fouls and misconduct, free kicks, the penalty kick, the throw-in, the goal kick and the corner kick.

In a surprising way, the laws of the game of Recovery Soccer mirror those of FIFA.  The field of play is the disaster zone, bounded by geography and population. Instead of a leather ball inflated with air, the Recovery Soccer ball is a sphere of supplies and equipment, sewn together and then filled with money.  The number of players must be sufficient to cover the whole field – rescue and recovery, logistics, communications, fundraising, procurement and storage, monitoring and evaluation, etc.  If one or more of these positions are vacant, the game cannot proceed.

The players’ equipment – uniform and protection – must clearly distinguish the members of the teams, and the teams from each other.  In disaster recovery, vague identification, unofficial affiliations, conflicts of interest and other sources of confusion cannot be permitted.  Further, the teams’ equipment must be equal in quality.  If, for example, the visiting team has better equipment – radios, vehicles, medicine, earthmovers, etc. than the home team, this will create an unfair advantage.  In post-disaster conditions, this can cause accusations, jealousy, insecurity and even loss of innocent life.

As in the conventional game, Recovery Soccer requires referees who are independent of the teams and who have the power to completely stop the match if necessary to resolve problems.  These referees must have quick reflexes and boundless knowledge of disaster recovery that comes from years of experience.  Unlike the teams who are on the field as competitors to score goals, the referees are on the field as a conscience and catalyst of the game.  Accordingly, their voices, whistles and penalty cards must be obeyed.

The time factor in the conventional game is also important in Recovery Soccer.  The occurrence of disaster signals the start of the match.  When it happens, the teams must take the field punctually and then play at full strength until a predetermined completion has been reached.  A common fault is disagreement about completion, causing one or both teams to leave the field too early.  Haiti has already experienced this violation.  Permitting spectators onto the field after the start of the match is also detrimental.  Their presence can interfere with the game, distract the players and even risk their safety.  Recovery Soccer should only be played by those who are adequately-prepared for strenuous activity and recognized as competent to be on the field.

Concerning scoring, this is a two-part process determined by a) the configuration of a relatively large field, and b) the placement of the goal posts, one set at each end.  Said another way, scoring requires both maneuvering across a large field and then hitting a relatively small target.  That is the only way goals can be made.  Any diversion, for example playing in only a small part of the field, or kicking too wide of the goal posts, or kicking into the wrong goal, will result in failure, even loss of the game.

Also note that the field is equally divided between home and visiting teams.  Thus, while the whole field may represent the zone of disaster, the teams’ territorial responsibilities – assignments, authority and allegiances – are the same size but for different purposes.  In Disaster Soccer the teams play as if the lines are blurred and can be moved at will.  But in Recovery Soccer the lines are distinct and don’t move.  The home team (comprised of government agencies) is primarily responsible to its citizens, while the visiting team (comprised of non-governmental organizations) is primarily responsible to the overseas donors and organizations that assembled and sent them there.  Thus, there is shared occupation of the field, but with distinct obligations to national versus foreign constituents.  The teams are equally motivated to kick and score goals, but they have different reasons for engagement.  This validates the presence and need for referees.

Fouls and other violations are expected whenever teams compete intensively over the same field.  To minimize this, FICA rules are uniquely intended to alter the normal use of the body.  These have interesting effects.  For example, prohibiting the use of arms and hands forces players to become highly specialized in the coordination of lower-body movement and the use of lower-body force.  Emphasis on legs and feet also brings the center of gravity closer to the surface of the field.  In similar fashion, players of Recovery Soccer must constantly remember that they are operating under emergency conditions (legs and feet) rather than normal conditions (arms and hands).  In a sense, “disaster” means that the world seems to be upside down.  Forgetting this, for example moving the ball, i.e. resources and money with their hands, i.e. for non-emergency purposes is a violation.  Likewise, aggressively engaging opposing players with their arms or hands will likely draw a foul and stop the game.

Several rules define the variety and placement of kicks and throws during the game, for example at the start of periods, when a ball goes out of bounds or after players commit fouls.  In Recovery Soccer, this repertoire of rules that punctuate normal play offers GOs and NGOs a formula for initiating projects and making corrections with regard to each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  For example, one team’s mistake generally means that the ball is given to the other team to kick or throw, in other words, to lead the next step in a program or project.  In the opinion of HRDF, were this rule followed more often in post-disaster relations among GOs and NGOs, recovery might proceed more smoothly, effectively and in balanced fashion.

Besides the interesting comparisons in FIFA rules to the play of Recovery Soccer, there is a contemporary set of recommendations governing the use of foreign assistance that could apply to humanitarian response to disasters.  This is the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness agreed to internationally on March 2, 2005. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/11/41/34428351.pdf   In summary, these are approximately fifty time-tested rules, grouped into eighteen categories: 1) scaling up for more effectiveness, 2) adapting and applying to differing country situations, 3) specifying indicators, timetable and targets, 4) monitoring and evaluating implementation, 5) exercising effective leadership, 6) aligning donors with partners’ strategies, 7) strengthening country systems, 8) strengthening development capacity, 9) strengthening public financial management capability, 10) strengthening national procurement systems, 11) getting better value for money, 12) implementing common arrangements and simplifying procedures, 13) having more effective division of labor,  14) having incentives to work together, 15) delivering effective aid in fragile states, 16) promoting environmental assessments, 17) managing for results and 18) establishing mutual accountability.

These are good rules for GOs and NGOs to observe when attempting to play Recovery Soccer.  Without a doubt, international humanitarian response to disasters is a form of foreign aid, although it is a) provided in an accelerated manner and b) little if any actually contributes to long-term development.  In Haiti’s case, it seems that the teams never completed playing the first period (disaster relief) before moving on to the second period (long-term development).  Evidence of this is the large number of earthquake survivors still residing in tents.  Neither team has implemented practical and humane resettlement for these hundreds of thousands, yet hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on long-term infrastructure projects in areas undamaged by the earthquake.  Were refugees present, serious fouls would be called on GOs and NGOs alike.

Finally, we return to the subject of referees – what is the need for them, who will they be, from where will they come, and what will be the source of their authority?

First, the need.  Among dozens of national and international assessments of post-earthquake recovery in Haiti, few if any are satisfied with the quality and quantity of progress, especially compared to the money spent, the labor invested and several other indices of recovery.  “Poor coordination” is the deficiency most often cited.  But Haiti today seems to be full of coordinators, on the teams of GOs and NGOs alike.  There may even be a surplus of coordinators.  So what is their problem?  HRDF has a different assessment, namely there is a lack of independent referees with authority to officiate the games, and who are assigned to get the most from each and every world-class player who has come to rescue Haiti since the earthquake and, more recently, the cholera outbreak.

Second, who will they be and from where will they come?  In a fashion, the Interim Recovery Commission was an attempt to referee post-earthquake Haiti.  But by direct experience, external assessments and the publicized discord among board members, chairmen and staff, the Commission seems to have failed this role.  It was essentially compromised by a) the unbalanced composition, i.e. almost entirely GOs of domestic and foreign origin, without significant NGO and private sector participation, and b) the rush to approve projects with little or no transparency, oversight, criticism and debate.

The era of the Recovery Commission is probably over.  As an alternative, HRDF suggests that referees come from the Haitian and international private sectors.  This is because, in the last analysis, near-term disaster response in any country relies greatly on the world’s private economies for technology, supplies, equipment, donations, medicines, aircraft, construction materials, inspectors, architects, engineers, physicians, builders, firemen and teachers and other skilled professionals.

Certainly, GOs are needed to permit and prioritize activities, and NGOs are needed to advocate for equity, fairness and transparency of response.  GOs and NGOs alike are needed to insist that recovery and reconstruction employ massive numbers of Haitians and that the money stays within the country.  But the private sector, comprised of organized labor and expert production, is arguably the ultimate source of national recovery on the material plane.  Hence, referees drawn from the private sector will be particularly motivated when the game is predominantly played between GOs and NGOs, such as in post-earthquake Haiti.

There must be safeguards against corruption, however.  This means that referees must have demonstrated success in Recovery Soccer.  They must not have private or competing economic interests in who wins the game.  Said another way, betting on the outcome of games will be prohibited.  Further, if and when the private sector begins to put teams on the field, the referees must be drawn from another sector.

Like many others, HRDF hoped that the great flow of foreign experts, money and resources into Haiti after the earthquake would result in decisive action and measurable improvements in the human condition.  Yet this did not happen.  Instead, there seems to be an endless game of Disaster Soccer – too much kicking and running around the field, and not enough goals.  HRDF supposes that GOs and NGOs alike have grown tired of this game and would rather start playing Recovery Soccer.  With the introduction of independent referees and a rulebook based on the Paris Declaration for Effective Foreign Aid, it may be possible.


Aldy Castor, M.D.  aldyc@att.net
President, Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF) 
Director, Emergency Medical Services Haiti Medical relief Mission, Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad (AMHE) Haiti Medical Relief Mission
Stuart Leiderman  leiderman@mindspring.com
Environmental Refugees and Ecological Restoration
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The Haitian Resource Development Foundation prioritizes programs that enable and empower various Haitian locales to further personal and collective independence. Engaging in a range of programs over 20 years, the HRDF continues a commitment to providing measurable results for program beneficiaries and program benefactors. Working with multiple international partners from North America and Europe, the HRDF is committed to fundamental improvements in Haitian villages to ensure greater economic vitality in the near future.