As the human civilization continues to evolve, our world is only getting more dangerous, not less. Natural disasters—including but not limited to the earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes of recent memory—happen with surprising frequency and are in part due to our decaying climate. Meanwhile, man-made disasters from building collapse to nuclear meltdown will continue to become more complex and more fatal as the human ego desires taller towers and more powerful sources of energy. Lastly, acts of terror seem an almost commonplace part of everyday life in many parts of the world—and, grim though it may sound, they will not end any time soon. As these disasters grow and claim more lives, new methods of prevention, response and recovery will be required.
In first world countries, disasters are clearly distinct from the normal state of events. However, in developing countries, the distinction between events requiring disaster response and those requiring humanitarian assistance is less clear. Non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations are often at the front lines during disasters and are able to intervene in these situations where countries with more specialized disaster response resources are impeded by political affairs. The challenges presented by disaster response efforts include "four common operational problems: (1) difficulties in interagency communications, (2) ambiguity of authority, (3) poor utilization of special resources, and (4) unplanned media relations." The need has arisen for a way to better coordinate cross-organizational and governmental response to disasters on the global scale.
The Role of the United Nations
In the international arena, disaster response systems have become increasingly difficult to maneuver as political rivalries dominate agendas and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) bear the largest burden of humanitarian assistance. As with many international situations, the United Nations—specifically, the Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA)—is intended to take charge during global catastrophes. The goal of OCHA is to "bring together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies."
Commanded by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, the OCHA includes divisions for Coordination and Response, Emergency Services, Communications and External Relations. Larger branches include the Surge Capacity Section (SCS), which manages massive influxes of responders, and the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), which develops procedures for urban search and rescue.
The most prominent of the NGOs involved in disaster relief include the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The former consists of a series of distinct organizations that collaborate under the auspices of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which was founded in 1919, more than fifty years after the initial creation of the humanitarian group. Under international humanitarian law, which is composed of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only body with authority to enforce the Conventions. As such, the various entities of the Red Cross are greatly respected as a do-gooder force around the world.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) was originally founded in 1933 as an American counterpart of a European disaster relief group. During World War II, the organization began focusing more on providing aid to refugees. The IRC maintains an Emergency Response Team, deployable within 72 hours, to assess the needs of a humanitarian crisis. Preparedness strategies include supplies pre-positioned around the world at hubs like Dubai's International Humanitarian City and a roster of emergency personnel for short-notice deployment.
Case Study: The Haiti Earthquake
On January 12th of 2010, a massive earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti, reducing the capital city of Port-au-Prince to rubble and killing hundreds of thousands. The subsequent international response was, on one-hand, quite moving, but also overwhelmed the surge capacity for responders. From OCHA's report on the response to Haiti:
Coordination and leadership were challenges from the beginning in the chaotic circumstances where much of local capacity had been destroyed or disrupted, and thousands of humanitarian and faith-based organizations arrived on the scene... weak humanitarian leadership and lack of local ownerships, the humanitarian sector's difficulty in preparing for and responding to an urban disaster, as well as a weak assessment of the humanitarian situation and needs delayed the response and led to important gaps in geographical and sector-based coverage.
Within a week, sixty-seven search and rescue teams composed of 1,918 responders and 160 dogs had arrived and conducted operations. Various reports put the number of humanitarian agencies involved between 1,000 and 2,000. By the beginning of February, a collaborative body called the Humanitarian Country Team was set-up, which included "seven UN agencies, seven NGOs, [and] the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement" and worked in coordination with MINUSTAH, the United Nation's mission in Haiti.
Summing Up International Disaster Response
At best, international disaster response is mind-boggling to navigate, especially as it is often bundled together with humanitarian assistance. At worst, it becomes a rat race to see which response organizations can respond the quickest and make international headlines first. Each year, the IFRC releases a report on their "International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) Programme." The most recent version reiterates the IFRC's stance that "the best way to overcome regulatory issues in international assistance is to prepare legal frameworks in advance of the onset of a disaster." Unfortunately, the process seems to only complicate matters with further bureaucracy instead of streamlining a response for the future. Perhaps tightly structured protocols are, in this case, not the most effective ones.
"OCHA in 2010: Annual Plan and Budget" (PDF) by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
"Evaluation of OCHA Response to the Haiti Earthquake" (PDF) by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
"Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti" by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee
For more from the Redesigning International Disaster Response series: