What We Do

Emergency Response

Strategy Overview


Two workers remove debris as a part of Typhoon Haiyan recovery efforts in the Philippines’ Lao Barangay, Ormoc City. (©Lutheran World Relief/Loren Hyatt)

our goal:

to reduce suffering and save lives in regions affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies.

The Challenge

At A Glance

More than 300 natural disasters have occurred each year over the past decade. In 2011 alone, natural disasters killed over 30,000 people, affected more than 244 million others, and resulted in estimated economic damage of US$366 billion.

Our grantmaking supports relief efforts in response to rapid-onset natural disasters such as cyclones and earthquakes, slow-onset crises such as famine and drought, and acute complex emergencies such as those related to political unrest and violence.

The relief agencies we support deliver food and clean water, improve sanitation, provide medical attention and shelter, prevent or minimize outbreaks of disease, administer cash-for-work programs, and provide other services in response to urgent needs.

Our strategy also includes long-term investments to help our partners improve the speed and performance of their relief efforts and help communities better prepare for disasters.

Our Emergency Response strategy, updated in 2012, is led by Hugh Chang, interim director, and is part of the foundation’s Global Development Division.

Emergencies occur nearly every day and affect thousands of communities around the world, leaving people in urgent need of help to survive and recover. While some emergencies, such as the earthquake in Haiti and monsoon flooding in Pakistan in 2010, gain widespread media coverage, many others are poorly publicized and receive little public attention. The circumstances can range from catastrophic rapid-onset natural disasters and disease outbreaks to slow-onset crises such as food shortages, drought, and gender-based violence and displacement of populations due to war and civil unrest.

The Opportunity

Rapid assistance can save lives during an emergency. With immediate financial support, relief agencies and local organizations that are first responders can deliver help within days—when needs are most significant and immediate response is critical.

Slow-onset emergencies, such as food crises due to drought, also require targeted support to help people recover and build resilience to cope with future shocks.

Our Strategy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Emergency Response program aims to reduce suffering, disease, and death in countries affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies. In addition to responding directly to emergencies, we have a longer-term strategy to help improve the speed and performance of our partners in the first critical hours of an emergency and help communities prepare for disasters and recover more quickly after an emergency.

The emergencies we respond to, which often number in the dozens per year, have included flooding in Nigeria, tropical storms in Vietnam, drought in the Sahel region of Sub-Saharan Africa, cholera outbreaks in Sierra Leone, earthquakes in Guatemala, and internal displacement of people in northeastern India.

Areas of Focus

Direct Emergency Response

We provide grants to help our partners respond to three general types of emergencies:

  • Drought and famine in Somalia have led hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in Ethiopia.

    Rapid-onset emergencies. The largest portion of our emergency grant funding is disbursed as fast-track funding to address high-impact disasters. Within 24 to 48 hours, we approve funding to pre-vetted and selected partners who have the local and national capacity to respond effectively. For example, two days after the Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010, we awarded US$1 million to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to provide immediate shelter, food, water, sanitation, medical care, and other services. A day later, we awarded US$500,000 to Partners in Health (PIH) for immediate and medium-term medical care through PIH’s 10 existing health facilities and mobile clinics in Haiti and for the provision of medical supplies, tents, blankets, water, and other essential items.
  • Slow-onset emergencies. Drought and famine are among the slow-onset emergencies that we work with our partners to address. For example, in 2011 we made grants exceeding US$8 million to support relief efforts in response to the severe drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The grants were made to several partners with longstanding experience in the region: the World Health Organization, Mercy Corps, International Medical Corps, Oxfam-America, International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Save the Children. Since 2010, we have also awarded major grants in response to the drought and food crisis in the Sahel.
  • Complex emergencies. Emergencies in this category include an element of conflict and often involve political and military forces and disruption of national systems; some have roots in natural phenomena. Many of our grants go toward basic relief support—including food, water, healthcare, and shelter—in conflict-ridden areas. In late 2012, for example, we awarded a US$1 million grant to the IRC to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where civil conflict has led to population displacement, civilian deaths, and gender-based violence.

Strengthening Partner Organizations

We work to strengthen the effectiveness of emergency responders by developing and disseminating effective approaches. We are currently carrying out pilot projects in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Bolivia, Niger, Nigeria, and the Horn of Africa.

We also monitor existing grants to gather data on successful models and practices and to fill in significant gaps in current research on emergency recovery. For example, several months after the Haiti earthquake, we awarded more than US$760,000 to Tulane University for a study to evaluate and assess the humanitarian response following the disaster. Findings so far have included the need for better coordination between international relief organizations and local and national leaders and institutions, as well the need for more protections against gender-based violence in the wake of a disaster.

In early 2012, we awarded a US$5 million grant to Tulane to create the Disaster Resilience Leadership Program, which will help universities in disaster-prone regions of Africa and Asia establish programs in disaster planning, risk reduction, and emergency-response leadership.

In 2009, we awarded US$2.5 million to BRAC, an international NGO, to improve emergency response in Bangladesh. BRAC has developed a highly successful model that includes formal emergency response procedures, training of more than 400,000 people to train others in their communities, and streamlined budgetary and signing authority to deploy immediate emergency response funds within their organization.

We awarded a 5-year US$5 million grant to CARE in 2008 to support the Emergency Capacity Building project, which has brought together six of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations—CARE, CRS, Mercy Corps, Oxfam GB, Save the Children, and World Vision—to improve the speed, quality, and effectiveness of their emergency response at all levels.

We also fund efforts by Oxfam Central America and its local partner PROVIDA to provide organizational assessments and technical and financial management training to 200 national organizations that act as first responders in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Learning Portfolio

A vaccine cold storage facility in N’Djamena, Chad.

Our Emergency Response program regularly collaborates with other foundation programs to develop and study innovative approaches to disaster assistance, including new tools and technologies. For example, we have worked with the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program on new sanitation technologies for use in flood zones, including the Dakar region of Senegal; with the Vaccine Delivery program to develop ways to store and distribute cholera and polio vaccines in Chad; and with the Financial Services for the Poor program to implement mobile-phone-based banking in Haiti, where more than a third of the banking infrastructure was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.


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