05 Apr 2012

In 2011, 27 Asia-Pacific countries suffered significant natural disasters, of which 10 triggered international tools and services.

In 2011, 27 Asia-Pacific countries suffered significant natural disasters, of which 10 triggered international tools and services. Regional efforts to improve and strengthen response to natural disasters include the conclusion of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Agreement on Disaster Management and the creation of the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Coordinating Centre; the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Coordination (SAARC) Disaster Management Centre, the work of the Pacific Islands Forum and efforts by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to improve the way in which international support can be provided to regional and national response work. Climate change, population pressure, food price hikes, the global economic situation and, particularly, disasters in urban areas— these are increasing vulnerability.

We may have the end of “general requests” for international assistance, with often unhelpful flood of aid such as after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005 and in Haiti in 2010. There is a need to get more organised, to provide help that is timely, well coordinated and useful. Countries and regional organisations tell us that the international humanitarian system can share valuable lessons, systems and processes to bolster and improve national and regional capacity.

Some challenges need to be recognised and overcome.


Resources. Population pressure, environmental degradation and increasing competition for limited resources are having an alarming effect. Huge fluctuations in food and fuel prices may be an indicator of worse things to come. Climate change has wrought flooding in low-lying cities, loss of agricultural areas and droughts, and development gains are in grave danger of turning into humanitarian crises.

Natural disasters, or natural hazards. These affect marginalised poor people, who live in increasingly exposed conditions, most. Whether it is the 2011 flooding in the Philippines and the Mekong area, or droughts, the repercussions on livelihoods and economic growth, or demands on governments, these hazards accentuate risk for poor and marginalised people. Yet the world is experiencing rapid and poorly planned urbanisation. The Asian Development Board reports that 40 per cent of Asia’s populace lives in urban areas, a figure projected above 55 per cent in less than 20 years. Moreover, Asia would be host to 13 of the world’s megacities by 2020. More than half the world’s slum dwellers live in Asia, it adds


If we want sustainable development, then all preparedness measures whether for mitigation, reduction or more effective response have to begin with the everyday challenges, and in such a way as to ensure that everyone, especially vulnerable people and their communities, are ultimately more able to deal with catastrophes. We need to increase the resilience of communities, their organisations and governments to prepare for shocks.

Conflict. The future may see increased marginalisation of vulnerable people, increased scarcity of resources such as water, arable land and increasing income disparity.

Global power. Asia’s growth and increasing prosperity is remarkable given the troubled global economy. What does it portend in the balance of global responsibility to ensure that humanitarian work retains its values—independence, impartiality, neutrality, and humanity? These are internationally accepted principles and we, as Member States of the United Nations and as members of the Red Cross Movement have a duty to uphold them. Also, what does it mean in terms of ensuring funds are provided for humanitarian assistance? How can the new wealth of Asian countries be used to support humanitarian work both through government channels and by increasing the capacity of non-governmental and civil society organisations based here? Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), Active Learning Network for Accountability and Partnership (ALNAP), and the key NGO fora are all driven from London, Geneva and Washington DC, paid for by the related funding agencies. Where is the Asian voice in humanitarian advocacy at the international level? Where is the sustained and consistent policy work on how the humanitarian endeavour should emerge in this region?


Challenges create opportunities.

First, we need more predictability in planning for and responding to disasters by agreeing to a common set of procedures that help disaster managers know more about respective systems and resources.

As an example, the Red Cross, through its project on International Disaster Response Law (IDRL), has worked with countries, NGOs and civil society organisations to develop some guidance to help stakeholders in countries put together effective legislation to manage international aid. Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and other countries have made good use of the services provided under this project to develop sound legal frameworks for requesting, receiving and managing international assistance. In May, in Bangkok, the World Customs Organisation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) jointly hosted a workshop on customs facilitation, to bring together customs officials from across the region to work out how, when help is needed from outside, it can be provided swiftly.

Second, “partnership” needs to be defined. States affected by earthquakes know what the international system can provide them through the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC)—onsite support to nationally led coordination for search and rescue teams. Many states across the region have made use of and provided resources to the Central Emergency Response Fund. The private sector is playing an increasingly important role—not only through funds but also through creative approaches and new thinking on problem-solving. Some governments have closely examined the international humanitarian response system and subsequently written it into their national legislation with their own adaptations. We need to build on these successful examples of ownership.

Third, we need to start looking more seriously at mitigating risk. Risk stemming from “natural” disasters, risk of conflict, risk of increasing people’s vulnerability to disasters through poor planning processes and the race to join the globalised world. Does mitigating these risks fall within the definition of “humanitarian work”? Maybe the reality is that our own artificial divisions between humanitarian action, recovery and development do no favours to those we are trying to help. We should recognise that some of the problems can be overcome by simplifying the way we describe these challenges.

Fourth, how can we work together to improve capacity to respond outside times of disaster beyond the writing of regulations? On the international side, tools, mechanisms and services are available, together with a coordination structure designed to help governments best make use of the support we can provide. But we find that our Government counterparts sometimes don’t understand the system or feel that it may not be really useful. On the basis of an Asia-Pacific led agenda, we need to intensify our collective efforts.

Fifth, we need to know what is available and what to ask for in a crisis. ASEAN’s development of the Standard Operating Procedure for Regional Standby Arrangements and Coordination of Joint Disaster Relief and Emergency Response (SASOP), and standby facilities, like the humanitarian response depot in Subang, Malaysia are a major step in the right direction, but we need to work harder to pre-agree what might, or might not, be needed from the international humanitarian system in terms of possible financing support, needs assessment, humanitarian coordination services, search and rescue assistance, food, medical supplies and personnel, and a host of other humanitarian supplies and materials. The evolution of the humanitarian system and the creation of various agencies, programmes, funds and an increasing NGO sector, means that it’s complicated and needs to be unpicked. One of the outcomes of the Regional Humanitarian Partnerships Meeting in Shanghai last year was that our government counterparts often are not sure HOW to ask for help and from WHOM. To respond to this we’re developing a guide for disaster managers in the region that explains what the international system is (and is not) and how to access the tools, services and supplies that it can make available upon request. Simply put, we need to provide a menu of options to governments so they do not have to deal with a deluge of assistance.

Finally, we need to consider the increasingly influential role countries are according to regional organisations. There is a need for the international humanitarian system to evolve into a third tier of response, after national and regional responders. The ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response is a strong signal of ASEAN’s desire for mutual cooperation and support in the field of disaster management. The Agreement recognises international humanitarian law and seeks to build it into regional response mechanisms. International humanitarian organisations are deeply involved in supporting the development of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management through the sharing of international best practice, participation in simulation exercises and secondment of staff. In the Pacific the establishment of the Pacific Humanitarian Team and its relationship with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community has done much to increase support at the regional level. Work is ongoing with the SAARC Disaster Management Centre.

Learning from failures

Beyond these, there are some very real challenges for the international humanitarian system. Some are being tackled through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s so-called “transformative agenda”. Addressing failures in leadership when it’s clear that international humanitarian assistance is going to be needed in large scale disasters such as we saw in Pakistan and Haiti are at the forefront of this revised thinking. Getting the right people on the ground, in the right numbers and at the right time is a challenge the committee is now addressing through developing systemwide response capability, and a roster of trained and “ready-to-go” staff, who will be able to provide coordination and management to international humanitarian response, while working with Governments.

We need to enhance accountability at the system level. Beyond each humanitarian agency accounting for its own action, we need accountability frameworks that measure the outcomes of our collective work.

Missed opportunities

What is likely the greatest challenge and opportunity that the humanitarian system faces today is the failure to make use of new technologies to discern what affected people want and need. Our model of delivery is relatively unsophisticated and functions poorly in urban environments while disasters are increasingly affecting people who live in cities, whose choices, behaviour and needs are dictated by a very different set of conditions from those found in the classical refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camp setting.

Communications technology is reshaping humanitarian space. It’s also redefining the role that aid agencies, UN, NGOs, Red Cross, etc., can play. It seems communication is narrowly defined as us communicating our message to the people that we are aiming to assist. This is a rather unsophisticated worldview. There is also confusion between “messaging” and two-way communication. Messaging is simply getting your agency’s message out. Two-way communications in a humanitarian environment can, be a pre-cursor to effective recovery.

Here in Asia the opportunity exists to redefine how the humanitarian system works. One area we need to start to think about more seriously is the role of diaspora especially in Asia where remittances from this group of people are a major driver of economies. What other role and expertise can they bring?

We need clearer guidelines for disaster managers across the region, and for governments, civil society organisations and the private sector in this region to seriously think about the development of some sort of humanitarian research institute—focusing both on regional and global humanitarian dynamics. Further, the current model with ever-increasing numbers of humanitarian actors is not sustainable—revising legislation for 21st century threats can pay huge dividends on how the international humanitarian system can provide support.

Oliver Lacey-Hall, regional head (Asia Pacific) for UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), spoke on at the Asia Public Policy Forum on Disaster Management in Asia, jointly organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School and Harvard Kennedy School, on May 14, 2012. This article is an extract.