8 August 2005

United Nations Humanitarian Assistance: Transition from Relief to Development

VIENNA, 8 August (UN Information Service) – Over the last few years, large-scale conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and Democratic Republic of the Congo, and disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, locust invasion, epidemics and droughts, have tested the humanitarian response capacity of the United Nations to the limits. The Consolidated Humanitarian Appeal for 2005 reported that 26 million persons in 20 crises worldwide needed humanitarian assistance worth US$ 4.5 billion.

These disasters, however, have demonstrated that the humanitarian community is capable of launching a massive response, when called upon. The United Nations cannot stop catastrophes, but can mitigate their impact. The Organization’s worldwide intervention proved its capability and efficiency, in post conflict and peacekeeping operations and humanitarian efforts. The global number of refugees is the lowest since 1980, and there is a better prospect for peace in a number of countries, especially in Africa. Johan Verbeke, Vice-President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) stated that, in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 240,000 people and severely affected more than 158 million in December 2004, there had been an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity, generosity, support and global cooperation among the members of the international community. Jan Egeland, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs stated that the Indian Ocean tsunami was nature at its worst, but also humanity at its best. “There was no outbreak of disease, no mass starvation; schools were quickly reopened and health facilities are probably better now than they were before in the affected regions.”

It has become equally apparent, however, that such a response cannot always be guaranteed, and there remain many difficulties and cases when response capacities could have been strengthened, and where the humanitarian aid system was unsuccessful. For example, deployment of humanitarian staff was delayed in Darfur. The tsunami response also highlighted several sectoral weaknesses such as the lack of capacity in the areas of water and sanitation, shelter and camp management and protection. Coordination among NGOs and between NGOs and the United Nations, particularly in the health sector, was poor. These and other failures also demonstrated the need to improve the system’s ability to tap into regional and national capacities. Building local preparedness is key to a more effective response effort. Regional and local actors, often the most effective at carrying out rapid assessments and coordinating the initial response, should be engaged and their capacities strengthened. Not only their participation, but also their preparedness is one of the most important preventive conditions to reduce further risks and damages.

Regarding the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, Patricio Bernal, head of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), a scientific body of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said "You can have the best and most sophisticated detection network and risk assessment, but if you don't have emergency and evacuation preparations, you are dead". In order to prevent similar disasters as the tsunami of December 2004, where neither an early warning system, nor evacuation plans were in place, the IOC set up a group in June 2005 to coordinate the warning system, which is comprised of a network of national systems linked through a regional base that has yet to be established.

Financial capacities must also be improved by enabling immediate response, ensuring equitable funding of crises and of sectors and providing funds to address existing gaps. Strengthening the capacity of the humanitarian system requires both expanding the mechanisms that can ensure appropriate and predictable deployment and tapping into existing skills and expertise to enlarge the system’s deployable base.

The United Nations Secretary-General emphasized in his report titled “Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations” that humanitarian assistance should not limit itself to relief after emergencies. The international community must go further. One of the most essential tasks is to start development in post-conflict and post-disaster areas, which will allow future mitigation of damages. Paying tribute to the extraordinary efforts of the United Nations and the world humanitarian community in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, former United States President Bill Clinton, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, warned that the most challenging days lay ahead in recovery, disaster prevention and applying lessons learned.

According to Mr. Egeland, emergency situations needing a global response have grown in complexity. Funding has to be made more predictable and timely. Measures to provide immediate access to start-up funds could be established, or funds could be set up to cover unforeseen development. Another key to the transition is national ownership in people-centred activities, the challenge being to balance short and long-term efforts. Better coordination has to be built up, especially by national authorities, adequate funding has to be given as early as possible and better preparedness and a higher risk reduction level must be reached. This is the only way for the international community to better respond to these transition situations, which are the key process for further global stability.

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