It’s common knowledge now that the first and principal responders to the plight of those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire were friends, neighbours and local voluntary organisations with deep experience of working with the local community. We at Muslim Aid chose to focus on the role of voluntary agencies in our recent report Mind the Gap: A Review of the Voluntary Sector Response to the Grenfell Tragedy.
We did not want to romanticise the role of voluntary organisations or gloss over mistakes made, but we did want to shine a light on the need for a more coordinated future response to emergencies. Aspects of Grenfell could play out again, at a time when the frequency of disasters in the UK is likely to increase because of climate change, vulnerability to terror attacks and the inherent risks of life in crowded, unequal cities. When I reflect on the tragedies in 2017 in Manchester, at London Bridge, at Finsbury Park and at Grenfell, and the inspirational community response, I feel optimistic about British community solidarity and response. However, central government and local authorities need to ensure there is a much more organised and coordinated response mechanism to ensure affected communities get the help they need and deserve.
I’ve worked in the humanitarian aid sector for 25 years. I’ve seen famines, floods, man-made disaster and the effects of war. On the ground at Grenfell, while we were distributing food and water, sorting through donations, supporting people who were fasting while we fasted, supporting the bereaved and sourcing halal-compliant meals, our attempts to impose order on chaos struck me as similar to an international disaster, even though we were only a few miles from Buckingham Palace. Every day was a new and unforeseen challenge.
In January, Muslim Aid and 24 other organisations came together under the Charity Commission aegis to discuss our role in responding to future domestic disasters. It was agreed that we would form a working group to move towards a collective framework to coordinate and enable future charity sector responses to national critical incidents.
The humanitarian aid sector’s catchphrase for such preparation is disaster risk reduction. I’ve seen people in Bangladesh being trained how to fall out of the highest windows to land on carefully placed mattresses, and many other techniques. The key is groups of volunteers who are trained and mobilised. "We expected people on site with walkie-talkies and high-visibility jackets, reporting back to a hub – but there wasn’t one," said Reverend Alan Everett of St Clement Church to Ben Anthony, director of the recent BBC documentary Grenfell.
It’s time to involve local actors in the UK emergency response, to embrace diversity in the UK voluntary sector, to bring Muslim organisations into the mainstream of UK disaster management. We must understand the impact of disasters on deprived or marginalised communities in the UK, prioritise advocacy and shape coordination to optimise capability. Collaboration between voluntary and faith-based organisations needs to be enhanced, cash grants need to be quickly accessed in emergencies and public donations need to be managed.
As Mind the Gap says, creating appropriate standby capacity is highly challenging in the UK, which generally faces relatively few, relatively small-scale emergencies. But without it, the consequences for people caught up in a crisis can be catastrophic. The voluntary sector needs to identify the capacities required by local actors and find ways to develop the preparedness of local secular and faith-based actors.
"No one could say what the plan was going to be," observed resident Natasha Elcock to Ben Anthony.
My hope for the future is that, when disaster strikes, those affected will at least know what the plan will be.
Jehangir Malik is chief executive of Muslim Aid