Project management and disaster relief

Project management and disaster relief

Why project management is vital in managing disaster relief

These days, it seems we can’t go more than a couple of months before facing yet another catastrophe somewhere in the world. Most recently, we’ve seen the Haitian earthquake claim hundreds of thousands of lives and leave millions more living in chronic poverty. Then there were the floods in Pakistan, followed closely by the volcano eruption in Indonesia.

In order for these countries to effectively manage the situation, it is critical that disaster relief coordinators understand and implement essential project management skills and employ project managers with a background in successful post-disaster reconstruction, and who have been involved in both managing project portfolios and overall project programs.

Project management expertise is the key to keeping relief efforts organised and focused. Sadly, these countries are often no strangers to natural disasters and economic turbulence. Nonetheless, what these nations need most at the outset - and throughout the reconstruction stage - is organisation and structure. Portfolio and program management ensures integration and collaboration of project work across government agencies and other organisations that will undoubtedly be part of the restoration solution.

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These skills can benefit the recovery efforts in a variety of ways. Aid workers on the ground should expect that the recovery process will be very detailed and go through many different stages of development. Planning for this level of detail will ensure that the recovery ultimately meets the country’s primary and societal needs.

As desperate as the situation may be, in the early stages of the recovery process, first responders must call upon and utilise project management skills to ensure the safe and successful delivery of medical care, shelter, food, and potable water. As reinforcements arrive, these responders should demand project managers whose skills and experience enable them to carry efforts through to the next phases of recovery and then of reconstruction. Volunteers and other “on the ground” personnel should create a preliminary relief plan that can be shared with coordinators to ensure duplication is avoided and aid is channelled as swiftly as possible. This is the time to secure the necessary project documentation and develop a scope of work that details what will be accomplished and the results that need to be produced as a program of projects.

Next, workers must take attention to detail to a new level. During this second recovery planning stage, aid workers should develop a neighbourhood assessment and emergency recovery management plan, a schedule, cost baseline, resource plan, risk plan and procurement plan. This is the time to dive in and break out specific tasks to be completed. This is also the time to identify tasks that will need to be completed to accomplish a larger recovery milestone, such as sustainable medical care, sanitation and water supplies, and emergency housing. Close attention to budgeting and planning for risks that could undermine initial goals is critical.

Aid workers and project managers must maintain flexibility as they manage and implement requested project revisions, and adapt to constantly changing conditions as the situation evolves. Throughout the recovery, workers will also need to monitor and control projects. This means regularly measuring project activities against the scope and initiating appropriate corrective actions when necessary.

Finally, in the closing stages aid workers must complete an exit strategy that allows the locals to take ownership over their future. While this stage is often months, if not years ahead, it is important to plan for the day that aid organisations will depart and ensure that their work will leave the country and its people in an empowered position and with a brighter future.

In addition to all of the good work aid workers do on the ground, they must also bring strong communication strategies to facilitate the delivery of essential services to victims of disasters while understanding and respecting the local cultural, political and religious traditions, all of which add another piece to the communication, and ultimately project management, puzzle.

Ultimately, project management offers the potential for a more effective and efficient recovery from disasters. For example, in the wake of the disaster since the 2004 South East Asian tsunami, local non-profit organisation, Project Aid, has used Project Management Institute’s Project Management Methodology for Post-Disaster Reconstruction.This is centred on training field workers from NGOs and Not-for-Profits in this method with a focus on post-disaster, humanitarian and community development project management. It’s these processes around project, program and portfolio management that are key to staying organised and focused, and to applying the solutions after being hit by disaster, together with subsequent projects to reconstruct communities and livelihood.

Reconstruction using proven methods and common frameworks is about solving problems and delivering intended results through an organised, structured methodology. The path forward for these countries depends on the employment of sound disaster reconstruction project management techniques to manage the ongoing recovery projects and programs.

Anwar Benjamin is the head of the Project Management Institute's Australasian office.

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