19 February 1993 - 21 February 1993

International Disaster Relief

Chair: The Rt Hon the Lord Hunt of Tanworth GCB

We met with the continuing calamities of Bosnia and Somalia fresh in our minds and vivid on the television screen - both of them reminders too, albeit in different ways, of the difficulties in neatly demarcating our subject as between natural and man-made disasters and as between immediate relief and longer-haul rehabilitation. The latter dimension in particular became a recurrent theme in our discussions: though prompt life-saving action, where needed and possible, must be to the fore, strategies and resource-allocation priorities for external aid needed always to be shaped in the full context of prevention, recovery and long-term development.

The trend of world-wide call for disaster relief, we heard, was steadily upwards. Even when allowance was made for the fact of more comprehensive reporting, the real volume of need - especially amid the post-Cold War weakening of many political structures - was rising, and at a rate not matched, nor likely to be, by a mounting real assignment of funding. With “per capita” resource thus falling, it was more and more necessary to enhance the efficiency - often hitherto at a low level - of relief effort.

We recognised and stressed, as a principle, the primacy of in-country effort, organisation and leadership. There were sometimes problems about this, with Somalia perhaps the extreme illustration. Shortcomings in government - over-centralisation, corruption, dis-information, discrimination as between segments of the population and inability therefore to command confidence - might be part of the problem itself, and no absolute rule could be laid down. But political realism, sovereignty concerns and rights (even if now perceived as less absolute than in the past), victim dignity and the practical value of on-the-spot knowledge and assets must create a strong basic presumption that the role of any external aid must be to support, not supplant; that leadership should remain local; and that to the maximum possible extent external inputs should operate with the grain of local structures and markets. If there seemed reason to judge, before or even during disasters, that local arrangements might fail to cope, donors should give high priority to strengthening them, by stimulus and training, rather than ride over them.

The need both for enhanced efficiency and for sensitive blending into locally-led effort pointed to the importance of good practical organisation and cooperation among external participants, whether Governmental or other. We all applauded coordination; we were less successful at defining preferred working patterns for it. There was, we agreed, no single model apt for every situation; ad hoc coalitions might often have to be built; we should not over-institutionalise; we should look to lubricate collective effort by good understanding and information-flow, rather than to drive it through peremptory command; but there ought somewhere to be coherent overview and guidance - all easier said in conference than reconciled in practice. But we did see a particular collective imperative - and opportunity - in the need, when calamity loomed or broke, for objective on-the-spot assessment, with information widely and freely shared, of what the true situation and its needs were, and what objectives should therefore be set. However clamant the problems, rush before reconnaissance was rarely effective and sometimes actually damaging.

We were much at one in desiring, if we could, to encourage and fortify the UN role. We were however far from sure that the UN had, or could soon acquire, either the structure or the management mindset to run relief operations in any direct way. We saw it nevertheless as importantly capable of legitimising international action in ways politically acceptable to both in-country and external participants. It might also be able to trigger collective appraisal and action in time of crisis; to guide international priorities amid competing demands; to organise and store collective experience; and to stimulate both precautionary work and the formulation and dissemination of the lessons of experience. None of these benefits could however be secured, we came to suspect, unless major countries applied real and sustained pressure for the new Department of Humanitarian Affairs to be given a major increase of resources - both staffing and dependable funds - and properly-defined authority to enable it to operate effectively and confidently within the UN structure. We sensed that a great deal needed to be done, and done quickly, in such respects.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were strongly represented at the conference - a proper reflection of their importance in the field. Their vigour and flexibility, the outlet they gave to private human generosity and know-how, and the fact that in overhead terms they mostly travelled light, were all distinctive assets; they were moreover sometimes more readily acceptable to recipient states than government-related forms of external involvement. But they often posed the problem of coordination in acute form, and rapid personnel turnover meant that experience levels were often low. We noted that the training of NGO personnel might be a productive field for governmental help.

We talked a good deal about the use of military assets in disaster relief, a subject of increasing attention in NATO and elsewhere. Many of us, I think, were rather impatient of suggestions that there was something inherently disagreeable about involving the military; but we did recognise that in some situations their involvement might bring the in-country political discomfort of external governmental involvement into inescapably sharp focus. Military assets and structures might also in some situations be over-elaborate, at least by comparison with other options. The military had however big resources in certain categories of relief need, and they had moreover organisational structures, skills and problem-solving attitudes which were powerful assets if brought to bear - as the military themselves customarily much preferred - only by invitation and under civilian political authority. In addition, there was an unpleasantly-growing class of disaster situations in which the added factor of civil strife or law-and-order breakdown generated protection needs which might make the back-up availability of armed force virtually a condition of any effective relief at all. Partly for this reason, the habit of understanding between military forces and NGOs deserved fostering; perhaps the idea of occasional military secondments to NGOs might be considered. Beyond this, we had time to note but not to resolve the issue of whether the military could reasonably be viewed nowadays in Western countries as, for the most part, an under-used resource, and the related issue of whether their effort in support of disaster relief ought accordingly to be charged for (if at all) at no more than marginal extra cost; we might perhaps have agreed that there was no one universal answer.

The part played by the media moved in and out of the discussion, alongside the delicate question of visibility for external-aid effort. There were awkward tensions here. On the one hand, donor taxpayers or voluntary subscribers expected to know where their money was going; high-profile and concrete publicity helped to stimulate public engagement and thus widespread contribution; it was a significant motivator too for direct participants, whether NGO or governmental. Against all that, it carried risks of competition between donors, and of unhelpful distortion in favour of the photogenic rather than the relevant, or of what best fitted the donor’s convenience and advantage - in short, risks of supply-driven rather than need-driven aid decisions. More broadly, media attention could serve, to divert limited total resource away from the long-term dividends of unglamorous preventive development. There was no ready formula for resolving all these difficulties; but it was worth putting effort into continuing pre-event education of the media.

The concept of action in advance came through at many points in the debate. Even in relation to sudden onset disasters such as hurricanes risk-assessment was possible, and preparation could be undertaken on both physical measures (like burying telephone lines) and organisational ones. International encouragement and know-how, based on experience, could strengthen coping ability in areas at risk, for example by prompting arrangements to make contingency plans, to train key personnel (preferably jointly, for team-building) and to set up structures of coordination. The UN might have a particular role in stimulating such efforts without wounding national sensibilities.

Preparation and pre-emption would be greatly fortified, we observed, if the international aid community could improve its capability to learn from experience, and to disseminate the product widely. Disaster relief was not itself a tale of uniform disaster; there were notable success stories - disasters that had been prevented from happening, or rendered much less severe than they might have been. The process of learning, whether from these or from the failures, needed careful and honest monitoring of events as they unfolded, collective review of their course by direct participants while memories were fresh, and efficient sharing of the knowledge that emerged. Here too the UN might have a distinctive contribution, at least as prompter.

The conference as a whole underscored the steadily-mounting scale of the disaster relief problem, and the encouraging parallel growth in the strength of the global humanitarian impulse, fuelled by media visibility, to respond to it. These factors came through also in the on-the-record speech by Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, the United Kingdom Minister for Overseas Development, who joined us on the Saturday evening. The prime action theme emerging, overall, was the need to harness and exploit this impulse more efficiently, in more systematic and better co-ordinated planning, preparation, response and follow-through, with the UN re-equipped to play a key enabling part

 This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Rt Hon the Lord Hunt of Tanworth GCB
Chairman: Banque Nationale de Paris plc


Mr Michael Aaronson   
Director, Overseas Department, The Save the Children Fund, London

Mrs Jenny Borden
Deputy Director, Christian Aid, London  

Mr Desmond Bowen
Head of Secretariat (Overseas), Ministry of Defence        

Dr Ian Davis
Deputy Director, Disaster Management Centre, Oxford Brookes University

Mr Geoffrey Dennis
Director, International Operations, British Red Cross, London

Mr Julian Filochowski
Director, The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD), London

Mr Julian Hopkins
National Director, CARE BRITAIN, London

Sir Michael Marshall DL MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Arundel

Mr Paul Montacute
Director, Division of Baptist World Aid (Youth Department) Baptist World Alliance (BWA), McLean, Virginia

Dr David Nabarro CBE
Chief Health and Population Adviser, Overseas Development Administration, London

The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Pattie MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Chertsey and Walton       

General Sir David Ramsbotham GCB CBE ADC Gen
Gen Adjutant-General, Ministry of Defence, London

The Hon Sir Peter Ramsbotham GCMG GCVO
Chairman, World Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief

Mr Anthony Redmond
Consultant/Senior Clinical Lecturer, Trauma/Accident and Emergency Medicine, North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary

Admiral Sir Jock Slater GCB LVO
Vice Chief of Defence Staff

Mr Tony Vaux
Co-ordinator, Emergencies Unit, Oxfam

Mr Kenneth Westgate   
Director, Cranfield Disaster Preparedness Centre, Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

Mr Al Doerksen
Executive Director, Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Winnipeg MB

The Hon David MacDonald PC MP
Member of Parliament (Progressive Conservative), Toronto-Rosedale

Mr Michael Mispelaar   
Team Leader, Food Security Unit, (1990-92)

Mr Graham Sims
Senior Adviser, European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), Commission of the European Communities 

Professor Jean-Luc Nahel
Vice-President, Médecins sans Frontières; Professor of Anthropology, University of Rouen.              

Herr Klaus Holderbaum

Coordinator, Humanitarian and Disaster Relief, Foreign Office, Bonn

Herr Dietrich Läpke
Head of Operations Division, Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) Germany, (Federal German Relief Organisation);

Dr Peter Walker
Head, Disaster Policy Department, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva

Mr Michael H Elmquist
Director of Civil Emergency Planning Directorate, NATO Brussels

Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent GBE KCN DSO
Chairman of Military Committee, NATO

Dr Randolph C Kent
Coordinator of the Inter-Agency Support Unit, Department of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations, Geneva

Mr Jose A Aponte
American Red Cross: General Manager of International Services

Mr Rudolph von Bernuth
Assistant Vice President, International Programme, Save the Children (USA)

Professor Kevin M Cahill
President and Director, Center for International Health and Cooperation and Director, Tropical Disease Center, New York

Mr Fred Cuny
Chairman of Board of Trustees, The Centre for the Study of Societies in Crisis Inc

Mr Peter J Davis
President and CEO, InterAction (the American Council for Voluntary International Action) (an association of 148 international private 
voluntary organisations engaged in international humanitarian efforts)
Ms Patricia Diaz Dennis
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs
Mr Jonathan Samuel Deull
Programme Consultant, Search for Common Ground (Washington-based organisation which fosters new approaches to solving seemingly intractable conflicts)

Mr Arthur E Dewey
Director, Office of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance for the Newly Independent States (NIS), US Agency for International Development, Washington DC

The Hon Lawrence Pezzullo
Executive Director, Catholic Relief Services

Mrs Julia V Taft
Consultant, State Department, Office of Coordinator/CIS Assistance (responsible for developing projects targeted toward families of Russian military)

Mr Thomas E Zopf
Director, Food Aid Management (an association of US private voluntary organisations)