Ethiopia’s Journey to Effective Emergency Response

In July 2018, the Ethiopian government led a 38-agency coordinated response to a humanitarian emergency between two regions in southern Ethiopia. The response, coordinated by an Emergency Operations Center, identified and prioritized humanitarian needs and allowed for the quick deployment of resources to a million Ethiopians displaced by conflict. The coordinated response was 11 years in the making.

“It showed all partners, government and non-government, that the system works,” said Rahel Asfaw, retired Director, Response and Recovery for the Ethiopian National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC), Ethiopia’s version of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.

In 2008, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began funding U.S. Forest Service disaster response experts to conduct capacity building workshops on emergency response in Ethiopia. Rahel was one of the first participants.

“I was inspired by the system. I wanted Ethiopia to be able to coordinate actors and resources. I approached my bosses then to start the process of establishing an Ethiopian system based on NIMS” [The National Incident Management System, a U.S. framework for emergency response.]

Rahel’s bosses were intrigued but they wanted to know more. In 2009, Ethiopian government senior officials visited California during a fire response. They met Arnold Schwarzenegger and they saw the NIMS system in action. The visit led to a memorandum of understanding between USAID and the Ethiopian government for implementation support of emergency response systems in four regions of Ethiopia. Later, the scope was expanded to six regions.

In 2013, Rahel traveled to the U.S. for the first time to visit emergency operation centers in Montana and Washington and to learn from the U.S. government employees who plan for and respond to state and federal emergencies.

“It was the first time I saw government and private sector Emergency Operation Centers and began to understand the setup, the purpose and design,” said Rahel.

Rahel Asfaw coordinating tactical operations during the 2018 internally displaced people humanitarian crisis

In 2014, Rahel and the NDRMC activated its first Emergency Operations Center in response to flooding in eastern Ethiopia. This single-agency response was a stepping-stone to the 38-agency coordination in 2018 and it gave Rahel the confidence to push her NDRMC bosses to implement the system.

The U.S. Forest Service had boots on the ground during the emergency responses in 2014 and 2018. They worked alongside the experts they helped train.

“They gave me confidence that the system would work,” said Rahel.

From 2008 to 2019, the U.S. Forest Service trained more than a 1,000 disaster management experts and supported the development of three different emergency response guidelines specific to Ethiopia. The Emergency Operations Center is one component of the USAID-funded NIMS program in Ethiopia. The U.S. Forest Service also collaborates with Addis Ababa city officials to support capacity building and policy development to enhance emergency operations in the city.

The U.S. Forest Service conducts a full-scale disaster training exercise with multiple sectors of Ethiopia’s emergency response apparatus.

Today, Rahel has retired from Ethiopian government service but serves as a consultant with the U.S. Forest Service by helping government and non-government disaster management stakeholders prepare to operationalize the Emergency Operation Center again if needed.

Rahel Asfaw, November 2019, U.S. Forest Service Regional Disaster Risk Management Expert

“From the beginning, activating an emergency response system was my vision. I was so happy when we succeeded,” said Rahel. “I believe that the government will be more comfortable operationalizing the system in the future.”

USAID is committed to responding to crises around the world and to working with the international humanitarian community to give vulnerable populations resources to build resilience and strengthen their own ability to respond to emergencies. Ethiopia now has a dedicated budget for emergency operations center development and expansion, and it has trained professionals with guidelines to implement response

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