WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A - In the first week of September, 50 million people around the world were affected by disasters. This sobering fact opened the Aid and International Development Forum’s Global Disaster Relief & Development Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. Kicked off as Houston grappled with Hurricane Harvey, and as Miami and Puerto Rico prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Irma, the AIDF conference exuded relevance—several panelists were absent, having been called to the front lines of the disaster response. This change in programming could have taken away from the summit, yet the opposite was true. The conversations that filled the hallways of the Ronald Reagan Building were ambitious, hopeful, and edifying. I look forward to bringing what I learned at GDRD 2017 to our work in Burkina Faso.

At Initiative: Eau, we are currently focused on developing WASHMobile, our flagship water-borne disease reduction program for developing cities, as well as strengthening our connection to Burkina. So, why go to a conference about global disaster relief and response?

Donald arrived in Fada N’Gourma in late August to oversee our programming and research, just weeks after extremists attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in Ouagadougou, Burkina's capital. The Peace Corps was evacuated from the country soon after Donald settled in. While the safety of our team is of utmost concern and we are closely monitoring the situation, we are also committed to supporting the communities with which we work. If humanitarian WASH aid is needed in Burkina, be it after conflict or natural disaster, we are dedicated to being one of the first organizations engaged in the disaster response. In addition to providing our water-related knowledge and resources, we will be able to utilize our relationship with the resident communities to facilitate aid programming. As we discussed at length at GDRD, the most effective aid is enacted by organizations with strong local connections. The future of Initiative: Eau is tied to the future of the West Africa region; we want to be an effective humanitarian actor in all relevant scenarios.

Attending GDRD with this perspective in mind, I learned a great deal from the experience and opinions of my peers. One great takeaway was the emphasis on creating a culture of resilience and risk awareness in our global endeavors. Moreover, numerous panelists stressed that the line between development and relief efforts is blurring.

Applying these ideas to Initiative: Eau is productive. WASHMobile will arm high-level water organizations with crucial water quality data needed to make informed decisions about drinking water infrastructure maintenance and expansion, and public health program targeting.  At the same time, it democratizes water quality data and gives water consumers the knowledge they require to make intelligent water decisions. This knowledge also enables consumers to hold water providers accountable and establish basic quality standards. Collectively, this bidirectional strategy reduces the incidence of water-borne disease. Parallel to this outcome, we must also create and nurture opportunities to educate the population about the risks of drinking contaminated water. By augmenting the community’s understanding of why we are doing what we are doing, we strengthen its capacity for handling a disaster that affects the water supply and quality. Furthermore, the people become empowered with the ability to seek out and demand clean water, even when WASH-conscious actors are not present. Everything we do will be consequential if we continue to be conscientious in WASHMobile’s implementation.

In a GDRD panel about better managing crises, Britt Lake of Global Giving noted the localization of aid is vital. Fragmented funding models undermine collaboration and we are inundated with pleas to donate to big-name aid organizations like UNICEF and Oxfam. These global actors are invaluable to the humanitarian aid landscape, but it is also critical to trust and support local organizations that have demonstrated relationships with the populations at risk. These groups inspire confidence in the local community, which facilitates specific and competent aid programming. Initiative: Eau is one of these organizations. Although we were founded in Maine and based in Cambridge, we are on the ground in Burkina. Donald is immersed in Fada and through our network of in-country support, we are building a vibrant relationship to the city. We are grateful for your support; without it, we would not be able to establish such deep ties to Burkina.

Leaving this year’s AIDF conference, I was energized by the collaboration and the many ideas that vitalized GDRD. As a development organization that is active in a fragile and developing region, Initiative: Eau has a distinctive opportunity to help frame the future. We are working tenaciously to do so.