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Refugees and displacement

Bob Kitchen on how to respond to humanitarian emergencies

What it takes to be a first responder in the world’s most severe humanitarian crises

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

When 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled across the Bangladeshi border into Cox’s Bazar, they had acute and immediate needs for shelter, food, water, medical care, and protection, at a scale that overwhelmed local government capacity. In cases like that of the Rohingya, and similar humanitarian emergencies affecting 164 million people around the world, Bob Kitchen leads the team at the IRC that deploys to meet those needs.

“If we’re on our game, it takes us less than half an hour to decide to go into a completely new crisis,” Kitchen told Displaced hosts Grant and Ravi. Three days later, his team is on the ground, assisting people affected by the emergency.

Kitchen is the director of emergency response and preparedness at the IRC, a unit that spearheaded the IRC’s support to 23 million crisis-affected people in 32 countries last year. Over his 14-year career in the sector, he’s witnessed how the shift from interstate wars to civil wars combined with more protracted conflicts are making emergency response more dangerous, complicating the division of labor between humanitarian aid and international development, and limiting the number of people in need who can access aid by making it harder for people to flee across borders during emergencies.

“We're at an all-time high of refugees around the world, but comparatively, the number of internally displaced has grown,” Kitchen said. People are “trying to hold on in their own country. I think that's because many of the countries that we're seeing violence … have seen it in the past. People have been refugees and they don't want to be refugees again.” That means that during a crisis, organizations like the IRC are compelled to cross front lines and venture deep into conflict zones to access people in need of humanitarian support.

In Yemen, for example, where the IRC provides health, nutrition, water and sanitation services for over 250,000 people, humanitarian access is complicated by the fact that the IRC must “negotiate our way into a fraught environment with territory that's contested by multiple parties to the conflict” to reach those in need of humanitarian assistance. The only way to negotiate with armed groups, Kitchen says, is for emergency response groups to maintain neutrality. 

This is the interview that explains what emergency response is, and how to do it. This is about overcoming operational challenges to get into emergencies quickly in the hardest places, places like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. We talk about trends in conflict, some of the thorniest issues in humanitarian access, and the IRC’s unprecedented push to make aid better by benchmarking its emergency response.

It’s not just more and more crises, it's that the crises that we addressed two years ago … just keep on getting worse.

It’s also (darkly) a very funny interview: We learn that Kitchen has gone running in at least three conflict zones, where he has faced threats from packs of wild dogs, stone-throwing children, and, um, conflict. We learn that to Bob, being in al-Qaeda controlled territory “feels safer” than ISIS-controlled territory — “what a world we live in.” And Grant and Bob bond over their appreciation for jump ropes.

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Related reading

Providing Aid in Conflict Zones Keeps Getting More and More Dangerous — Vice News, Kaj Larsen

Typhoon Haiyan Disaster Response: How the Relief Effort Worked — The Guardian, Mark Tran

How the World Failed Haiti — Rolling Stone, Janet Reitman

Negotiating Humanitarian Access: How Far to Compromise to Deliver Aid — The Brookings Institute

Syria’s Weaponized Humanitarian Space — The Carnegie Endowment

How Important is Neutrality to Humanitarian Aid Agencies? — The Lancet, Priya Shetty

‘It’s a Slow Death’: The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis — The New York Times, Shuaib Almosawa, Ben Hubbard and Troy Griggs

Cash Aid to Households is Most Effective in Reducing Insurgency Threats, Stanford Research Shows — Stanford News, Clifton Parker

US Food Aid and Civil Conflict — American Economic Review, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian. (Here’s an open-source version)


Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.