The frequency and intensity of natural disasters are on the rise around the world. In the year 2011, we witnessed the kind of disasters that are expected only once every 1,000 years. According to the global reinsurance company Munich Re, with over 300 billion dollars in damages, 2011 was the costliest year in recorded history for losses from natural disasters. In 2011, disasters displaced over 215 million people, with floods accounting for nearly 87 percent according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) report. In 2012, large-scale floods, landslides, and earthquakes occurred around the world, including in India and Pakistan. The super cyclone Sandy, which demolished coastlines on the eastern part of the United States, is estimated to have caused economic losses of over 50 billion dollars. Given the increasing magnitude and frequency of natural disasters around the world, there is a need to review the international humanitarian system designed to respond to these types of events to ensure it is prepared for future challenges.
According to the State of the Humanitarian System, a report by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), in 2009 there were over 4,400 INGOs with over 274,000 humanitarian workers worldwide undertaking humanitarian action on an on-going basis. This humanitarian system is under the overall control of a select few mega-NGOs with superior technical capabilities, resources, and access to financial support; these organizations make serious efforts to learn from experiences, monitor performance, and improve their accountability to both donors and communities. One such effort was a recently released review of the state of the humanitarian system by ALNAP.
While acknowledging the continued commitment, boundless energy, and tireless effort of members of the international humanitarian system in response to over 140 major humanitarian emergencies in 2009 and 2010, it is clear that the system as a whole has room for improvement. The GHA report suggests that in the last five years, developed countries contributed around 150 billion dollars to humanitarian disaster response. However, a select number of countries received major portions of this assistance, leading to the perception that Western countries are driven by geo-political strategies rather than by humanitarian needs on the ground.
Another wide-spread opinion is that greater media visibility resulted in a greater response from the international community, resulting in an unequal distribution of assistance and an inadequate response to ground needs. To change this perception of international natural disaster response efforts, the system must work for greater inclusion of non-traditional actors–like national disaster management authorities, NGOs from the global South, and especially local communities–to increase its accountability to those in need and to ensure responses are effective. The ALNAP report notes that the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance depends largely on the timeliness of the response, leadership, coherence and coordination, innovation, and the ability to accurately identify victims and their needs.
Understanding the real needs of affected communities is crucial to alleviating their suffering; however, determining these needs is a difficult process. Following disasters, affected communities will independently react according to the complexities of their own social and political situation; it is important for response teams to acknowledge these local response mechanisms and develop methods and tools that work in coherence to deliver support on a short, medium, and long-term basis. Vested interests, communication barriers, and preconceived theoretical notions can affect the ability of humanitarian actors to objectively assess the needs of those affected by disasters.
To counteract these constraints, humanitarian agencies place great emphasis on consultation with affected communities, involving them in the assessment of need, planning, and various stages of implementation. However, for this consultation process to be successful, it must include proper orientation of all actors involved in the humanitarian response, and as the ALNAP report suggests, it must be bolstered by greater overall efforts to make disaster response more inclusive and to develop local capacities.
Worldwide, national, regional, and international organizations have shown a growing maturity in the coordination of disaster preparedness and risk reduction activities. In Nepal, The Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC)–a partnership among development agencies, financial institutions, the Government of Nepal, donors, and international and local organizations – has been an effective model for coordinating disaster risk reduction efforts. The spirit of pre-disaster coordination promoted by NRRC translated into an effective joint assessment and well-coordinated relief activities following the Seti flood in Nepal. However, as ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report indicates, in many other countries, the humanitarian system’s effectiveness and efficiency in post-disaster situations doesn’t reflect the same maturity in coordination and coherence, leading to duplication of aid and wastage, and often inviting corruption.
Regarding assistance, it is believed that Western countries are driven by geo-politics than by humanitarian needs.
Another major concern in disaster response is delays in the delivery of assistance. The current process of issuing humanitarian grants is lengthy, and involves an appeal process between humanitarian agencies and donors. It takes weeks and months for the benefits of these grants to reach affected communities. Immediate assistance often comes from select local and international agencies with meager reserves, but this is hardly enough to alleviate the suffering of the people in the wake of a disaster.
Efforts to reduce risk before disasters strike need to be enhanced. ALNAP reports that investment in disaster risk reduction amounted to only one percent of the 150 billion dollars spent over the past five years. In the long-run, planning and preparation saves lives and capital. For example, investments in preparedness efforts in Kenya played a major role in the success of nutrition interventions during the 2011 drought response. There is an urgent need for donors and national governments to understand the compelling need and infallibility of disaster preparedness and risk reduction as well as efforts to build the resilience of communities at risk. More attention must be paid to the development of early recovery systems, infrastructure rehabilitation, and ensuring the indefinite provision of basic services in the absence of a state-led alternative.
The research included in the ALNAP report can serve as a mirror to organizations willing to evaluate themselves to improve their service to disaster-affected people. Gender gaps, which were left out of the report, should also be addressed. In this age of increasing public demand for transparency and accountability, frank internal assessment and dispassionate third party assessment, like this report, are crucial to enhance the credibility of the humanitarian system in the eyes of national governments and the general public. The report highlights opportunities for improvements; and if these opportunities are not taken, the aid system is in danger of losing more ground.
The author is a Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist at ICIMOD. Views expressed are his own.