Groundhog Day: Getting Human Surge Capacity Right In Emergencies

"One of the great constants in emergency response is the difficulty of surging the right staff, at the right time, with the right skills sets." 

Humanitarian Groundhog Day, August, 2014, Iraq. One of the constants in emergency response for me has been the difficulty of recruiting the right staff, at the right time, with the right skill set. In this respect, Iraq was no different to any other emergency I had worked in.  With one eye on ISIS encircling Yazidis on Mount Sinjar; my other eye was reading hundreds of surge candidate’s resumes. As an OCHA manager this became an almost daily chore for me throughout my time in Iraq; identify staffing needs, submit a surge request, receive a response, short list names, select a candidate, and then hope they arrived within a few days. Some arrived, some didn’t. Some of those who didn’t arrive eventually turned up; but working for someone else. 

The support I received from OCHA’s surge deployment team in Geneva was excellent; they did an impressive job, successfully deploying 53 surge staff to Iraq that year (including me). Without them, OCHA would have failed in Iraq. Despite this support, I always felt I didn’t have enough staff at the right time. Critical posts were left vacant for too long; less experienced staff were deployed to fill more senior posts. OCHA was not alone in this regard. A constant refrain from colleagues in UN Agencies and NGOs in Erbil was about high staff turnover and critical vacancies remaining unfilled. For the international humanitarian system as a whole, surges to Iraq “were limited and challenged by a combination of depleted human resources (internal and standby rosters), security issues, and difficulties in attracting people, especially to work outside the capital cities. (The State of the Humanitarian System, 2015, ALNAP ).” This problem was not unique to Iraq. Problems with surge for the system was also recorded that year in the Ebola response, Typhoon Haiyan, the Syrian refugee response, CAR, and South Sudan. A search of the literature identifies similar issues with surge capacity over many years within the sector, although the system is much better than when I first worked in Kosovo in 1999.

Over the last decade, particularly after the 2010 Haiti Earthquake and the ensuing Transformative Agenda, individual aid organizations made a deliberate effort to improve surge capacity. OCHA’s strengthened internal surge mechanisms is clear evidence of this. In 2015 OCHA rapidly deployed 482 staff to 34 countries, which was equivalent to 27,918 staff days. Other aid organizations have also considerably improved their internal surge capacity. But are these commendable individual efforts enough from a system perspective? I don’t think so. This is not just my opinion, nor something new. As far back as 2008 People in Aid wrote the following about surge capacity:

"It is clear that single agency scale will, at some point, become finite. To meet the challenge of increased need and limited resources, developing surge capacity is about leverage within organisations, and collaboration, as a form of leverage, between organisations. In working together, agencies are likely to achieve their goals more quickly…. the shared humanitarian imperative provides an even more compelling case for collaboration: we know that the quality and outcomes of both relief and longer-term recovery and development are directly related to how well agencies work together in the immediate response phase, so our record has to improve in this respect, for the sake of the individuals and communities with which we work.” Ben Emmens and Rachel HoughtonUnderstanding Surge Capacity Within International Agencies

The issues identified by People in Aid in 2007 and 2008 are still prevalent today, as I experienced first-hand in Sri Lanka, Libya, Jordan and Iraq.  The Transforming Surge Capacity Project,  which brings together 11 Start Network agencies with ActionAid leading and the CHS Alliance as technical partner, identified that:

“Although internal coordination of organisations has improved, collaboration and collective work remains fragmented, with greatest progress seen at the very local level; despite recent UN reforms having strengthened collaboration, major crises have continued to see uncoordinated efforts and duplication between responders; and a lack of collaboration has been seen by INGOs and UN agencies with national governments and new emerging actors.” The State of Surge Capacity in the Humanitarian Sector 

The same report noted there were clear “advantages of increased collaboration – such as cost effectiveness, increased coverage of humanitarian needs, and capacity building in new areas – highlight a clear link to more effective addressing of humanitarian needs.” The cost effectiveness argument was also reiterated in the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain, where aid organisations committed to “reduce duplication of management and other costs through maximizing efficiencies in procurement and logistics for commonly required goods and services.”  

So, beyond the reports and commitments, is anything being done at a practical level to improve the humanitarian system’s surge capacity? There is one Spanish social enterprise that is starting to make an impact in this space; HumanSurge. I recently had a chance to speak with their CEO and cofounder, Loek Peeters, about their work and vision for the sector. 

Brendan. How would you describe HumanSurge in under 50 words?

Loek. HumanSurge is a global emergency roster connecting available qualified humanitarian professionals globally with organizations responding to disasters, in real-time, through a shared online platform. We are driven by social impact, created by humanitarians for humanitarians!

Brendan. What inspired you to start HumanSurge?

Loek. Having worked for over a decade in humanitarian contexts around the world, I have seen and experienced the challenges around surge capacity first-hand.  This means for example being in the field and having a certain position remain vacant for too long, and you or a colleague end-up covering (at least aspects) of that position. In what is typically already a highly volatile and challenging environment, this is an unwelcome burden which affects both programming, as well as mental and physical wellbeing.

Other times, I would be deployed for say three months during which one typically works very long hours. At the end of the assignment one may be physically and mentally exhausted, yet in absence of a replacement the request to stay longer turns into an ethical dilemma. Do you stay with the team and address the needs you now know so well of the disaster-affected population, at the risk of your own personal wellbeing (and subsequently a diminishing contribution to the programming)? Or do you be ´selfish´ and stick with the pre-agreed terms of deployment?

On the other hand, I have at times been ´back-home´ and available for a deployment. Yet no organization would know I was available and I may have been less inclined to actively search for a position, although I would surely respond to a request. While being listed on organizational rosters, many-a-times I would not receive any notice, whether just informative or an actual request. While on other occasions I could be asked to travel to the other side of the world. For me, it begged the question whether someone equally qualified were perhaps closer-by.

In sum, there seemed to be a ´market inefficiency´ in terms of supply-and-demand of aid workers. While the key argument in the sector for not locating ´the right person at the right time´ is scarcity, I sensed that there are many highly qualified humanitarians out there, yet we are disconnected. Organizations struggle to keep their rosters up-to-date and there is no place where anyone can raise their hand and say: ´here I am, I am available´, to the sector-at-large.

Talking with many humanitarians and senior recruiters confirmed this perception. Moreover, a study of available publications on surge capacity further reinforced this view, and importantly showed that most actors acknowledge these challenges. HumanSurge was inspired from the will to tackle these solvable issues by becoming a connector and enhance global surge capacity.

Brendan. Why did you set up a social enterprise and not a non-profit?

Loek. We first sought to build this solution together with an INGO. Yet the general feedback was that this would work best if non-aligned with anyone of the actors. Standing independent we would not be perceived as biased in an environment where humanitarian actors compete for the same resources. Launching a foundation was the second possibility, yet there were two main hurdles in Spain (where we are located): (1) It required significant financial resources which we did not have at the time; and (2) there are bureaucratic and administrative barriers to forming and reporting, which could drown the initiative before even becoming accepted as a tool.

There was also a big third reason for not launching a foundation: the USD 15 billion funding gap. Under the current funding gap for humanitarian needs, starting to compete for the same resources, ´knocking on the same donor doors´, seemed unsustainable. Rather, if the value proposition of HumanSurge solved a real need, organizations would sign-up saving time and costs on their recruitment, while improving staff wellbeing of their teams through enhanced surge capacity. By achieving economies-of-scale we aim to maintain the fees low, and enable access for all.

In legal terms, there is no ´social enterprise´ model (in Spain). Rather there are certificates which certify our social impact vision. Currently we are in the final stage of receiving a social impact certificate in Spain. At the same time, we are considering the more globally known ´B-corporation´ certificate, thus providing external guarantees that we prioritize social impact over profit.

Throughout we have been drawing upon the start-up methodology to innovate and develop HumanSurge. With EC-funding we were able to spend three weeks in a start-up accelerator program in Silicon Valley, and we currently are enrolled in a similar six-month program in Spain, called Lazarus. Telefónica (The main Spanish telecom provider) invited us to join their OpenFutures programme, offering free workspace, support and guidance. HumanSurge received the Start-up Europe Award 2016 Spain in the category social impact, taking us to the European finals. We also secured initial funding from social impact investors and a state-backed loan for young entrepreneurs.

Brendan. The UN Emergency Relief Chief, Stephen O’Brien, recently said that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN. With total humanitarian aid requirements exceeding US$20bn, coupled with possible big cuts in the humanitarian aid budget of the U.S. Government, why should aid organizations pay for HumanSurge?

Loek. I was lucky enough to participate in the World Humanitarian Summit. In the discussions around the Grand Bargain, I was particularly struck by the emphasis senior humanitarian leaders placed on improving efficiencies within the sector. If we are to do more with less, and support and use national capacity, then both as individual aid organisations, and as a system, we need improve and streamline business processes.

For example, now, most organizations (try to) maintain a roster system, yet many acknowledge that this is difficult to keep up-to-date, requiring significant time and resources. Moreover, it is done in silos, there is a reluctance to share this information at times even between member organizations from the same federation or network. We all know that most aid workers who are not in full time employment will be on more than one roster, who wouldn’t?

This is where HumanSurge can help. We are user-based, enabling every humanitarian professional – national or international - to update their experience, skills and importantly their availability as it changes over time. By updating, they can show their availability to the sector-at-large with the click-of-a-button. What is more, incorporating the perspective of professionals, they can indicate the maximum period of deployment, no-go countries and consultancy vs employment preferences. Organizations can create various short-lists online and continuously add new profiles, as young professionals enter the sector and gain skills and experience. This can replace their current system, notably for smaller NGOs whose rosters may just be an Excel sheet. They can have their rosters up-to-date on an ongoing basis without needing to dedicate extra time and resources.

HumanSurge will save them time and costs in the long-run and can drastically improve an organization’s surge capacity, to the benefit of their teams and the disaster-affected populations. Finally, organizations with a mandate to respond to emergencies should have a direct interest in complementary tools which enhance their surge capacity, more so, as staff wellbeing continues to gradually move higher on their agenda.

Over time, building understanding of the individual profiles, by cross-validating their experience and skills, HumanSurge will enhance global surge capacity at a sector level. Not just those of expatriate profiles, but equally of qualified national humanitarian professionals, contributing positively to the ´localization of aid´ agenda. This also creates new opportunities for regional and national mobilization.

Brendan. Describe the first customer you gained? Why were they willing to take a chance on you?

Loek. There is a recognition in the sector, and among HR departments that there are huge challenges in finding the right candidate at the right time, and that it is not just a matter of receiving hundreds of CVs. Several inter-agency studies have documented these challenges and possible solutions. When we started, we had nothing more than an idea. Drawing upon the start-up methodology, we were encouraged to find clients willing to pay a nominal fee for the future solution. This sent a strong signal that there is indeed a need (a market), and a willingness to try a complementary surge tool.

It was very encouraging to see that we quickly reached our target of ten INGOs. There may have been different motivating factors to each case, yet I believe the key driver was their desire and commitment to provide their teams in the field with qualified surge colleagues. Their organizational rosters and informal networks would not (always) meet the demand, and the opportunity to expand the network of available qualified humanitarians was welcomed. These first users have been innovative early-adopters. They have helped shape HumanSurge, allowing us to adapt the platform truly to their needs.

Brendan.  Describe the first customer you lost and why?

Loek. Unfortunately, we lost some clients at the end of 2016 as their trial period ended. Several reasons have been identified. Firstly, we have seen changes within HR departments, in some cases several positions who were either using HumanSurge or who had a say in its continuation.  This meant we were back at square one, and had to start the conversation all over again. We are hopeful to again regain them as a client.

A second reason has been profile related, which in this case was due to the nationality of profiles. Some of our early-adopters had restrictions, based on national laws, as to which nationality could be contracted (easier). Given that our database was not particularly large on any given nationality, nor could it search based on nationality, they could not find the candidates they required. In the future, we will work to enable this function, so they may also return.

Lastly, an innovation / start-up is a work-in-progress, we are listening to our users, both professionals and recruiters, to enhance the system and make it work for them, and this is an iterative process of learning and adapting. Some of our first users, may not have entirely understood this aspect, still expecting a fully functioning application with a huge database. We are confident that they will come back once HumanSurge has come to full growth.

Brendan. I see that you have partnered with several training providers, including: RedR UK, Humanitarian U, Logistic Learning Alliance, NOHA, and IECAH? What are these partnerships about? Why are they important?

Loek. In the summer of 2016 I went to London and had a great conversation with Martin McCann, director of RedR-UK. I shared what we were doing and where we were heading. He gave me good advice, based on the experience RedR-UK has had on maintaining a roster in the past. What is more, he saw in HumanSurge a way to add value for their professional members. We discussed the possibility to identify RedR-UK members who register on HumanSurge and to show this status on their profile. This would make their members stand out towards recruiters, providing them with employment opportunities. At the same time, recruiters would be able to search for cross-validated profiles on HumanSurge and RedR-UK could gain some additional visibility through HumanSurge. All in all, a win-win-win proposition, and a first step towards several collaborations within the sector.

This was not part of our initial ´Minimum Viable Product´, as we just sought to be a connector. Yet at the same time all recruiters we had spoken to asked whether we would validate profiles, more often than not, this was their first question. So, we saw this as a natural ´pivot´ of the application that had to be integrated, more so, since we could automate the process. Today, any professional registering on HumanSurge can certify qualifications with the mentioned associations, universities and institutions. Once cross-validated, a ´badge´ is added to the profile by which recruiters can filter. We cherish all collaborative partnerships we formed to-date. They each reflect the openness and willingness within the sector to innovate. We aim to grow our network of partners in the future.

Brendan. What's the most important thing you're working on right now, and how are you making it happen?

Loek.  We are currently part of a 6-month accelerator program based on the lean startup methodology. We are trying to validate several hypotheses to better understand how to scale and which way to steer HumanSurge so it adds value for all parties. For instance, we recently consulted with recruiters about their experiences, we were made aware of issues around our communication component, namely email and text prompts. Following that, we have redesigned it to be more user friendly, which will be integrated shortly. We are also adapting the site search functions based on what organizations have told us. We are aware of improvements that need to be made. The main thing for us is to work on enhancing user experience for recruiters, so as to increase the number of success cases (deployments).

Similarly, we listen to the registered professionals as they likewise have expectations and we are eager to meet those. We have already started to show them if their profiles are listed in search results, and we will start to show if they were short-listed, or marked as a favourite by recruiters. To-date six percent of registered professionals have been contacted by one or more NGOs.

Brendan. What's the hardest decision you've made so far?

Loek. I am passionate about this project, yet leaving my ‘day job’ to pursue this 100 percent meant taking a significant risk, not just for me, but for my family. Fortunately, I could count on their support, as well as on the support of friends and many colleagues from within the sector. After finding a partner who could manage the IT-side, and who was equally willing to embark on the creation of HumanSurge, our decision was final. Just do it.

Over the last year I have gained a lot of respect for entrepreneurs of all sorts, whether they have a small coffee shop or hair salon, they invest lots of time and resources and take significant risks in the expectation someone values their service. The failure rate in the first year is high, and I can now appreciate much better, the reasons.

Brendan. What has surprised you most about setting up HumanSurge in the humanitarian sector?

Loek. Without a doubt, the unwillingness in this sector to share and the inefficiencies to which this leads, has surprised me most. A short anecdote: When I started talking with people in the sector back in 2015, before we even launched, the first responses were too often: “I won’t share the names of people on our roster”. While an organization has no commitment to the people on their roster, organizations may not share them even within their own partner organizations. There is this complete reluctance to share data, if everyone shared, this alone would help ease the difficulties in surge capacity. I think of it as a “prisoner’s dilemma”, where two able actors will not work together, although if they would, their joint outcome would be higher. This links back to the World Humanitarian Summit, where many were committed to sharing as a principle, yet current systems may still provide a disincentive for them to do so.

On the other hand, we can now see growing interest and a movement towards innovation within the sector. However, if we look at the most innovative of places, like Silicon Valley, their solutions come from outside of the sector they target: Airbnb was not invented by a hotel chain, Uber was not invented by the taxi industry. Skype and Whatsapp were not designed by a major telecom operator.

Innovation can happen in the humanitarian sector, and I am convinced this can vastly and positively change how we can assist disaster-affected populations. It requires spaces where new ideas are nourished and where they can access seed funding. It also requires the sector to open-up to new ideas and give them a chance to become self-sustainable. Support and collaboration, not just in words, but in action. By-passing stagnant procedures that may limit adoption-rates.

Brendan. What are your goals over the next 1, 3, 6 and 12 months?

Loek. The coming months will be all about improving user-experience for recruiters, while seeking to validate alternative business models. Secondly, there will be a focus on improving the completion rate of profiles. In the mid-term we seek to complete a current funding round to-scale operations, which is well on its way. We already have enough funding to continue operating at our current rate, and interestingly enough, we have gained significant support from actors outside of the sector.

Beyond the 6-month mark, we are also looking to bring more benefits to the humanitarian professional. Creating an interactive experience, where they can access information and resource of interest to the individual. We already promote information related to staff wellbeing, free online course and other tools that can be of their use through our social media. An earlier survey also showed that they have interest to interact with each other. Since there are already several other social networks on this to interact, it is to be seen if and how this could add value.

Brendan. What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Loek. Our biggest hurdle is what in start-up methodology is referred to as the ´dead valley´. It is the period between having early-adopters and moving towards having an ´early majority´ on board. Today HumanSurge is fully functional and has already established new connections between humanitarian professionals and organizations. Being effectively a ´market place´ for humanitarians, both parties want to see each other: NGOs ask for humanitarians, and humanitarians ask for NGOs. However, we do not (yet) dispose of a major marketing and sales department to identify and engage with all interested parties within a short time-frame.  Yet, it is the sector-wide adoption that will attract more and more (senior) humanitarian professionals, and inversely. Once critical mass is reached, all stakeholders are due to benefit from enhanced global surge capacity, not least the disaster-affected populations.

Brendan. Can you convince a humanitarian organization to start using HumanSurge in under 50 words?

Loek.  HumanSurge enhances your organizational surge capacity. It reduces time and costs of recruitment; vastly expanding your network of potential qualified humanitarian professionals. Scan through thousands of profiles within seconds, based on search selectors unique to the sector. See their confirmed availability status. Short-list and contact with a near 100 percent response rate.

Considering your organizational mandate, the teams in the field, and needs of disaster-affected populations; can you really afford not to take look at HumanSurge?

Brendan. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today. Based on my experience and knowledge of the sector, surge capacity is definitely an area ripe for disruptive innovation.

Loek. Watch this space! 

Loek Peeters has been a humanitarian aid workers since 2004. After leaving corporate Europa to join an earthquake response with a major INGO. Worked mostly in humanitarian settings, in over a dozen countries, for various INGOs and UN. Started as economics graduate, later complemented with a Master in Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts University on a Fulbright scholarship. More recently, completed a Degree in Program Evaluation. Moved back to Spain. Happily married, with children. Currently enrolled in a fully subsidized ´lean-startup accelerator´ program, representing HumanSurge. To learn more about HumanSurge follow them on Twitter and visit their website: HumanSurge

Loek Peeters, CEO and Co-Founder HumanSurge

Loek Peeters, CEO and Co-Founder HumanSurge


Loek Peeters has been a humanitarian aid workers since 2004. After leaving corporate Europa to join an earthquake response with a major INGO. Worked mostly in humanitarian settings, in over a dozen countries, for various INGOs and UN. Started as economics graduate, later complemented with a Master in Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts University on a Fulbright scholarship. More recently, completed a Degree in Program Evaluation. Moved back to Spain. Happily married, with children. Currently enrolled in a fully subsidized ´lean-startup accelerator´ program, representing HumanSurge. To learn more about HumanSurge follow them on Twitter and visit their website: HumanSurge