Saving more lives requires abandoning broken, reactive approach to aid – UN

Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Saving more lives requires abandoning broken, reactive approach to aid – UN

Relief aid should anticipate and prevent – not just react and treat, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) declares today in a new report that challenges humanitarian and development actors to change the way they operate, and aims to kick-start an urgent global dialogue on preventing crises through effective risk management.

“If we have any chance of stopping the suffering, we need to prevent it from happening in the first place; we need to address the root causes of crises, not just the symptoms,” says Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-wha Kang on the launch of the new report, Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow, which outlines in detail the disconnect between how aid groups analyze risk and how donors allocate funds.

The report recommends bridging that gap by taking concerted action to: make preventing future humanitarian crises a priority; create new partnerships and incentives; work differently and systematically address risk; and dedicate resources today to save lives tomorrow.

OCHA illustrates the need for such a change drawing compelling examples from today’s headlines: the immense challenges facing Tacloban in the central Philippines and Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR). At first glance, the two circumstances would appear to have little in common: they are separated by continents and oceans, and share no common language or cultural heritage.

Yet, this changed at the end of 2013 when both cities were affected by massive calamities: Tacloban was flattened by Typhoon Haiyan in early November; and Bangui erupted into violence after months of tension and years of neglect boiled over. For the first time these disasters – although hugely different in nature – saw the two countries lumped together. Both were classified as ‘L3’ emergencies – the severest rating the UN uses for humanitarian crises.

However, OCHA explains, the people of Tacloban and Bangui shared one other thing in common. Both had been let down by an international aid system that prioritizes reaction over anticipation. Both these disasters could have been anticipated, and some of their worst effects could have been prevented.

Indeed, each year, the UN and the European Commission compile a list of countries considered most at risk to natural disasters and large-scale social conflict. And while this information is publically available, OCHA says that despite the fact that CAR was ranked the third ‘riskiest’ country in the world, aid groups working there have consistently struggled to raise funds. Despite this extraordinarily high risk level, the crisis-torn country is one of the lowest recipients of aid – it was only the 78th largest recipient of development aid in 2013.

Against that backdrop, the report emphasizes that measure to ensure that aid should anticipate and prevent, not just react and treat, and must be implemented urgently, citing the growing human and financial cost of disasters and conflict.

“The number of people affected by humanitarian crises has almost doubled over the past decade and is expected to keep rising,” it says. “The cost of international humanitarian aid has almost trebled in the last 10 years, and responders are being asked to do more, at a greater cost, than ever before.”

Of course, some crises cannot be prevented by humanitarian organizations or by development funding. The violence that has gripped CAR was triggered by a political breakdown that has split communities across the country along religious lines. But this political crisis occurred in a context of chronic underdevelopment and neglect. More aid – and more aid that was tailored to the specific risks of CAR – could have gone some way to preventing the crisis from escalating, OCHA emphasizes.

The link between anticipation and prevention is clearer in the Philippines. Tacloban sits on a small bay. In recent decades, the city’s foreshore became home to some of the central Philippines’ poorest people. They built simple and flimsy homes on public land. It was shocking, but no one should have been surprised that it was these people who suffered the most when Typhoon Haiyan hit.

“Risk analysis is woefully underutilized in decision-making,” says Ms. Kang. “Information is available but it does not always translate into action, perhaps in part because of difficult financial structures or perhaps because of institutional and political obstacles.”

The report acknowledges that shifting from cure to prevention presents political challenges at multiple levels. It has implications for politics in the affected countries, between and within aid agencies and in donor countries. Making this shift will be complex and challenging.

But OCHA declares the timing is right for such a shift. The world is gearing up to create a new post-2015 global development framework, which is likely to demand that poverty reduction and sustainable development efforts are more closely integrated. Governments are also set to agree on the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. And, in 2016, the international community will gather for the first ever World Humanitarian Summit, where managing crisis risk will be a top item on the agenda.