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The White Helmets Commission (Spanish: Comisión Cascos Blancos) is a body of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship in charge of designing and implementing international humanitarian assistance. It has a network of bilateral and multilateral cooperation links through which it coordinates immediate response to social-natural disasters; it works on rehabilitation, reconstruction and development tasks; and it promotes risk prevention and management, in Argentina and abroad.
White Helmets carries out its activities by means of a volunteer corps, through a working strategy based on cooperation, solidarity and community participation. White Helmets acts at the request of the affected state or within the framework of a call for international humanitarian assistance. Since its creation in 1994, it has participated in a number of international humanitarian assistance missions with a strong regional approach, as well as in domestic campaigns together with other federal, provincial and municipal agencies.
White Helmets has its origins in 1994, in the Commission against Hunger and Poverty, an international civil body created to combat those social problems. This body marked the beginning of the participation of developing countries in the provision of international humanitarian assistance, which until then has been reserved for donor countries, and introduced the use of volunteers as a specialized professional corps.
In that year, United Nations General Assembly adopted and approved the Commission as an Initiative, named it White Helmets and incorporated into its agenda the response to man-made or natural disasters, conflicts and emergency situations of any kind.  Thus, the White Helmets Commission extended its reach to other aspects included in the concept of complex humanitarian emergency. It embraced the purpose of supporting UN activities within the sphere of emergency humanitarian assistance and of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development in times of transition. Furthermore, it was established that the Commission would act pursuant to the guidelines of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs —OCHA— since 1998) and work in coordination with the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Programme, which deploys personnel for missions.
Since then, the UN General Assembly has renewed its support for the Initiative every three years, highlighting the importance of the Argentine experience in addressing humanitarian crises, through the organization of volunteer corps. The most recent expression of support was at the 67th UN Assembly, in 2012.
It subsequently approved resolutions that gave rise to a system for supporting the activities carried out by White Helmets in the Americas, including a Special White Helmets Fund. The OAS ratifies the Initiative every year.
In 1999, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) —the platform of the United Nations system promoting relations and synergies for coordination of disaster reduction activities— was added to the work carried out together with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)and United Nations Volunteers (UNV).
In 2000, White Helmets became a body reporting to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and, as a result, it incorporated a group of career diplomats into its personnel structure.
As from 2003, the working structure of the Initiative was reformulated, thus enabling horizontal assistance in situations of crisis or social-natural emergency (that is to say, beyond natural disasters) and including different types of situations of social deterioration or collapse.
In 2007, with a view to guaranteeing that disaster risk reduction is made a national priority and is provided with a solid institutional basis for its enforcement, the Argentine Republic created its National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (PNRD in the Spanish acronym), coordinated by the White Helmets Commission. It should be noted that the PNRD was implemented in accordance with ISDR guidelines. The continuity of the work with the UN enabled the consolidation of White Helmets throughout the years. A number of resolutions of the body recognized the important role of the White Helmets Initiative not only as regards humanitarian assistance, but also with respect to the development of mechanisms that facilitate the local management of emergencies, with the participation of the affected communities.
The White Helmets’ view on humanitarian affairs is based upon the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Humanitarian Reform. With the conviction that poverty is the main cause of vulnerability, this approach reconsiders traditional concepts and definitions. This was the case when building the concept of “social-natural disaster”, agreed upon within the context of MERCOSUR, which replaces the “natural disaster” category. The latter is understood as an unforeseeable and inevitable phenomenon.
The development of prevention tools was incorporated into the logic of “response” operation; the idea of “landing” with technology after the disaster has taken place became obsolete when faced with the idea of community participation.
The inclusion of the community in all processes, with a truly prominent role of civil society organizations and the coordination of local volunteer corps, completed the view on the issue of humanitarian assistance. It is an opposite model to that of targeted assistance, which addresses risk as being natural, inevitable and unforeseeable and, specifically, as exceeding the ability of nations to face it.
With a cross-cutting and democratic approach to humanitarian assistance, White Helmets respects the sovereignty of nations and seeks to cooperate with communities so that they are not merely potential victims, but active players in the different stages of comprehensive risk management.
White Helmets has encouraged and defended this approach at all levels of the Humanitarian Affairs Segment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). These efforts came to fruition in 2009 with the creation of the Specialized Meeting on Social and Natural Disaster Risk Reduction, Civil Defence, Civil Protection and Humanitarian Assistance (REHU), which represents the first attempt to consolidate a mutual support mechanism within the framework of MERCOSUR.
Most common type of actions
Based upon its body of volunteers and the Hyogo Framework for Action as a guide, the White Helmets Commission carries out four types of actions.
In case of emergency and natural or man-made disasters, when its collaboration is requested, White Helmets coordinates teams of Rapid Response volunteers, who work in the field providing assistance in previously determined areas or topics. In these cases, candidates are pre-identified and pre-selected and the work team is organized and inspected to verify that it is in a position to act in the field with a delay no greater than 72 hours after the disaster.
Apart from its concrete contributions to assist victims, these humanitarian assistance missions provide training and practice to local resources in the diagnosis of damaged structures, management of humanitarian supplies, and strengthening of local volunteer work. Likewise, White Helmets makes several humanitarian aid supplies available to the international community. Among such supplies, it delivers clothing, blankets, tents, rehydration salts, water purifiers, medicines, food and tools, which are delivered in coordination with local authorities and in accordance with the informed needs. In order to guarantee effectiveness and timeliness required by this type of aid provision, White Helmets human resources specialized in logistics and supplies management participate in the missions.
Rehabilitation and Reconstruction
Once the immediate impacts of the emergency have been overcome, White Helmets takes medium and long-term development measures for the purpose of strengthening local response mechanisms and reconstructing productive structures that may have been damaged. In this regard, missions carry out actions focused on health care provision, education and agri-food assistance.
Comprehensive Risk Management and Resilience
In line with the Hyogo Framework for Action and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, White Helmets regards disasters not only as natural but also as social, economic, and environmental phenomena. The consequences of such disasters depend on the degree of vulnerability of the society, which derives from complex factors such as inequality and poverty, the degradation of ecosystems, and climate change. In this vein, White Helmets promotes comprehensive risk management by creating prevention tools to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen the resilience of the communities. For instance, through programmes, training and workshops, White Helmets fosters the building of local capacities, disseminates experiences and good practices, and raises awareness of the benefits of reducing disaster risks and adopting policies to prevent and reduce vulnerabilities.
Actions on Argentine territory
Within Argentina, White Helmets works on projects of disaster prevention and response by creating resilience tools through the local voluntary work strengthening programme. Furthermore, it collaborates in emergency assistance in coordination with federal agencies and provincial and municipal governments.