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Avoiding Disaster After the Disaster

Paul Mitchell's picture

If the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami off Indonesia in 2004 have shown us anything it is that large scale natural catastrophes are not rare. Calamities that claim tens of thousands of lives happen with regularity (about every four years on average). Many others claim a smaller number of lives but are equally devastating to local communities. The claims that these disasters are unique “100 year events”, which cannot be predicated and therefore cannot be planned for, are increasingly hollow.

Many natural catastrophes are exacerbated by human activities – such as deforestation or destroying mangroves. Mitigation measures can be put into place – witness the enforcement of building codes in Chile which made the impact of the recent earthquake there less devastating, or the replanting of mangroves in Bangladesh and the construction of buildings that local populations can gather in during cyclones. How we prepare for and manage disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, which we know will happen with regularity, so that disaster does not follow disaster, is an issue that the relief community still struggles with.

This has been exacerbated by the interconnected global community which can see disasters almost as they strike and the public are subjected to endless wall to wall coverage (at least for awhile) on all media. This has greatly increased the political attention and demands for action and has drawn in many more organizations which want to help, and some which want capitalize on the disaster.

I started working in emergency operations for the United Nations 25 years ago and the issues which prevented full relief efforts from taking place- money, early response and coordination - are still problems today. Haiti graphically illustrated these issues and also showed us some ways forward.

Money –immediate cash up front is something that every disaster requires. Yet every major UN organization or NGO which responds to a natural disaster has no or very little money to use in its first response. It is only when the disaster happens that the funding operations swing into place and while response can be quick, even with the huge advances technology has made in this area, the lag time between the disaster and raising funds can be critical days if not  weeks. A few governments offer some small funding – about $10 million for immediate relief, but it is not enough.

Haiti perhaps showed a way forward when the World Bank and IMF each offered up to $100 million for the relief effort. They are maybe the only institutions with the money to provide a permanent global revolving relief fund for first response when these disasters happen. The funds – which would hardly cause a ripple in their finances, could be put at the disposal of the UN for example, which would provide the funds to its organizations and major NGOs. This type of fund could permanently resolve what has been a problematic issue in the relief community for decades. A fund like this could also be used to hedge commodity prices. Organizations like the World Food Programme (which I used to work for) which now have to buy food on the spot market has no stability in the prices it pays. Often when it does buy locally in disaster areas or nearby it must pay higher prices.

This funding would also create a much better communication environment. Given the drive for money and the voluntary way it is raised all the organizations working on an emergency engage in a huge competition on the ground to entice media to cover their part of the disaster relief effort. Organizations also flood the web and social media with these appeals even more emotionally touching that the mainline media coverage. This result is a distorted view of the disaster as agencies try to show the worst things happening in order to create sympathy for more voluntary contributions. Little is done to explain the reasons why the disaster happened or how its impacts were increased by human interventions and often little is done on recovery and future prevention efforts.

A second issue is the need for a global rapid response force that could be immediately mobilized for disasters.  Given today’s technology this does not have to be a permanent force sitting on standby, but a virtual force that could be summoned at the touch of a keystroke. This force would have the blessing of the UN and all governments. It would have the pre-set leadership, lines of command, control of the logistics chain, water food and shelter materials, ability to tap into the revolving fund and the ability to control and coordinate all responses on the ground in the first weeks of a disaster. The UN is perhaps best suited to manage these forces. It already has a well organized office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs but it would need more organizational strength and mandate especially direct control over all relief efforts – no matter the organization UN or not in the first weeks after a disaster. This force could also organize and take in a media pool immediately which would have more freedom to cover disaster without relying on aid organizations either for logistics or the pressure to get favorable coverage to raise funds.

The last major issue is coordination. There are now simply too many organizations wanting in on disasters. The UN has centralized organization among its agencies but given the need to raise funds they still “compete’ on the ground during emergencies. The legions of NGOs which flock to disasters often do not want to be coordinated. In Haiti the health nodule had more than 400 organizations in it – far too many for any real coordination. The result is many organizations are off doing whatever they want with little or no oversight creating confusion on the ground and in the minds of people who want to respond or donate to disasters.

It is time for much tougher control on the ground. If the regional response concept was put into place it would decide who can come into provide disaster relief at least in the initial stages of a crisis.

Inevitable as natural catastrophes are to happen so is the lack of resources and confusion on the ground. It is time to recognize this and take much firmer control of the response.


Photo Credit: United Nations Photo (on Flickr)


Submitted by JJ vd Merwe on
Dear Paul, your article is so true, but let me share a positive example from my experience in this regard, allthough it is at a much smaller scale. I also worked in the UN system for many years dealing with Mine Action (landmines and other explosive remnants of war) and after a couple of interventions in post conflict situations it was decided that there was a need for a rapid response capability. The lead agency for Mine Action in the UN (UN Mine Action Service), who also manages the Voluntary Trust Fund for Mine Action, approached their Donors who agreed to maintain a level of funding in the Trust Fund earmarked for emergencies. This money provided seed funding until the other funding mechanisms kicked in. In addition, agreements were set up with implementing partners that would provide mine action services such as Mine Risk Education, Mine Clearance (Manual, Dogs and Machines), Survey as well as a small unit with personnel to establish an office in the mine affected country on an emergency basis. This included vehicles, office furniture, communications infrastructure etc. Personnel for the capability were identified in ongoing mine action programmes and by maintaining a roster of pre-screened individuals. This way the time to employee staff for the programme was much shorter. As far as co-ordination, it had its challenges, but overall the system worked well, since there was one lead agency and maybe because there was a single common objective to reduce the impact of landmines on affected communities.

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