Disaster Management and Multilateral Humanitarian Aid: Parallelism vs. Combined Forces

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Pat Gibbons and Hans-Joachim Heintze (eds.)The Humanitarian Challenge10.1007/978-3-319-13470-3_1

1. Disaster Management and Multilateral Humanitarian Aid: Parallelism vs. Combined Forces

Catherine Bragg 

Centre for Humanitarian Action, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland



Catherine Bragg

1.1 Introduction

This chapter provides a “practitioner’s perspective”1 on an aspect of the changing dynamics among the actors engaged in humanitarian response, namely disaster management actors and multilateral humanitarian aid actors. How these two groups relate to each other is symptomatic of the challenges in the international humanitarian system today, and harbinger of the changes that will take place in the next few years. A fuller understanding will be important for developing and training future humanitarian actors.

A traditional view (ALNAP 2012)2 of humanitarian actors places “core actors” of the humanitarian system into three categories:

  • the providers: donor governments, foundations

  • the recipients: host governments, affected population

  • the implementers: the Red Cross/Crescent Movement, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), national non-governmental organizations (NNGOs) and United Nations agencies.

This traditional view is largely a legacy of the post-Cold War conceptualization of international humanitarian aid. Simplistically put, it envisioned a world in which rich countries funded multilateral organizations, and their sub-contractors, to work in poor and fragile states with humanitarian situations. It formed the basis of an attempt to establish an “international humanitarian system” through a UN General Assembly Resolution (46/182), which, in 1991, created a coordinating department within the United Nations Secretariat, established a senior position of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and formed an umbrella inter-agency coordinating and policy-making body of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The IASC is inclusive of the UN agencies and major international NGOs through their consortia, while coordinating with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) who have standing invitees status. National and community-based non-governmental organizations, while increasingly more involved with IASC in the 20 years since, still operate largely at the periphery of the system.

The role of states is clearly recognized in UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182. Affected states have “the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory.” Their role is also increasingly codified in a body of law, under the rubric of international disaster response laws. However, it could be noted that the traditional view sees governments as only donors/providers and hosts/recipients, and not as implementers. It is somewhat surprising that this subtext has endured even into recent reports and writing, even as the same authors note that national governments are increasingly adopting more active roles in responding to humanitarian disasters, ones that go beyond acting as “hosts” and inviting international assistance.3

From the point of view of many countries, the important development is the strengthening of their own disaster management capabilities. It is therefore well observed4 that many countries are strengthening their national disaster management structures, including central and decentralized agencies, legislative frameworks and overall governance. Even some of the smallest countries (from Botswana to Bhutan) now have national disaster management agencies or departments and national legislation, with varying degrees of effectiveness. When disasters strike, many disaster-prone countries, especially those who in the last two decades have joined the ranks of middle-income countries, wish to lead, control and be responsible for the “initiation, organization, coordination and implementation” of disaster response. This response, may or may not involve the use of international assistance, and may or may not involve the multilateral system.

In developing disaster management capabilities, state authorities generally engage civil protection, even civil defense, personnel and precepts. From the traditionalist point of view, it raises concerns regarding adherence to humanitarian principles, sovereignty and access, and capacity. Given the different points of departure, an important questions for the future evolution of the international humanitarian system is how to engage state authorities in working towards common humanitarian objectives.

1.2 Contrasting Interests

A cursory review of the topics and themes of interest to the major humanitarian policy and research institutions and think tanks5 in the last decade reveals an unsurprising list of topics, very much related to the traditional conceptualization of the humanitarian aid architecture.

On the providers, one finds discussion under the rubric of “humanitarian financing” topics such as funding mechanisms (e.g. pool funds), funding according to need (impartiality), sufficiency of funding against need, and donorship of so-called emerging donors.

On the recipients, much is written about (weaknesses in) communication with, and accountability to, affected population and needs assessments. Recent interest in cash transfers has given better recognition to recipients’ self-help aspirations. As to host governments, the coverage seldom veers outside of issues of sovereignty, and government’s role in access (including invitation for outside intervention) and humanitarian space.

Not unexpectedly, there is more published on issues related to the implementers than either the providers or the recipients. There is continuing discussion and debate on the accountability, competence and coordination of the implementing actors, and indeed, whether they use or take advantage of research, evaluation and other evidence-based information. Since the so-called War on Terror, there is heightened interest in the security of humanitarian workers. Interest in the humanitarian system architecture and system effectiveness generally centres around the implementers.6 In the last few years, there is increasing pre-occupation with the ever widening cast of actors who work in, or near, the humanitarian sphere, but who are not part of the “core actors” group. All policy and research institutions are paying more attention to the growing presence of Islamic players, whether governments, aid providers, funders, or host cultures, in an attempt to foster deeper understanding. It is probably not inaccurate to say that the current revival in debate on the relevance and salience of the humanitarian principles is derived directly from observation of this increasing diversity in actors (whether military, peacekeepers, private sectors, or governmental or non-governmental groups from regionally significant countries) and from the involvement of Islamic players. This debate is not only academic, but actively pursued within the traditional implementers circles themselves.

The major (and mostly Western) donors fund and support these areas of research and policy discussions.

Contrast this to the interests of state authorities of countries in managing disasters, including those with humanitarian consequences, and features of “civil protection” as an overall approach, pervades discussions.

Interestingly, there is no common, globally accepted definition of the term “civil protection” [just as there is no globally accepted definition of “humanitarianism” (Davies 2012)]. It is generally accepted as being derived from the Cold War concept of “civil defense”7 and is covered under Article 61 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention. The Article refers to the “humanitarian tasks intended to protect the civilian population against the dangers, and to help it to recover from the immediate effects, of hostilities or disasters and also to provide the conditions necessary for its survival”.8 For many, “civil defense”, “civil protection”, “civil safety” and “emergency management” all involve state entities and assets established to prevent and mitigate the effect of disasters on persons, property and environmental structures, though “crisis management” emphasizes the political and security dimension rather than measures to address the immediate needs of the population. The common denominator is that response mechanisms include civilian first responders, military and paramilitary personnel and assets and are, generally, under civilian lead.

The increasing strength of national disaster management, especially in Asia and Latin America in the past decade, has drawn heavily from the world of civil protection. This has included strengthened national disaster management agencies (NDMA) usually headed by someone with a civil protection or military background.9

Unlike humanitarian action, there are few non-governmental institutions or think tanks with policy or research focus on civil protection. Academic institutions at the tertiary level offer courses and degree or certification programs, usually under the rubric of disaster or emergency management rather than civil protection. Individual contributing professions, such as engineers or medical or paramedical personnel, also have specialization in emergency response and management. Governmental bodies and practitioners in civil protection organize conferences, trade shows and workshops aimed at sharing of ideas and reaching commonalities amongst players. The thematic focus of academic courses and practitioners’ gatherings emphasizes:

  • policies and procedures for maximization of availability and utilization of first responders’ resources

  • common standards and methodology of resources, in particular, of equipment, deployment of personnel and central emergency centres

  • personal preparedness of citizens

  • business and community continuity

  • training and readiness.

While the Additional Protocol of the Geneva Conventions referred to civil defense as involving humanitarian tasks, within the civil protection circle, humanitarian principles are very rarely a topic per se.10 It becomes an issue of concern only when the discussion turns to the use of (national) civil protection and civil defense assets in international response deemed to be of a humanitarian nature (e.g. Protezione Civile and Cooperazione Italiana allo Sviluppo 2011; MCDA 2012). When raised, it is usually by the humanitarian traditionalists.

1.3 The Role of Governments

A fundamental canon of international humanitarian assistance is that it is called on if and when State authorities are unable or unwilling to address the needs of those affected in times of (large scale) humanitarian emergencies within its borders. In addition to the recognition of the primary role of state authorities in “the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance” in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (1991), the resolution also states that, “Inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations working impartially and with strictly humanitarian motives should continue to make significant contribution in supplementing [italics added] national efforts.”11 Yet studies after studies have shown that the oft-repeated mantra of “there only to support the Government” by the multilateral aid system is seldom manifested in reality, and usually awkwardly implemented when attempted.

The role of governments as an issue of interest for the international humanitarian community began to emerge in the past few years, in part because of events such as the Myanmar Nargis Cyclone, the development of a body of law on disaster response (commonly known as international disaster response laws) spearheaded by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and an increasing number of evaluation citing difficult relationship as one of the impediments to effective humanitarian disaster response.

In 2010, ALNAP devoted its annual meeting to the role of national governments in international humanitarian response. In 2011, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the IFRC, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) convened an “International dialogue on Strengthening Partnership in Disaster Response”, with one of the main themes on bridging national and international support. The background papers and reports make for interesting reading (ALNAP 2010; Harvey and Harmer 2011).

The ALNAP meeting referred to four main roles and responsibilities of governments regarding humanitarian aid:

  • they are responsible for ‘calling’ a crisis and inviting international aid

  • they provide assistance and protection

  • they are responsible for monitoring and coordinating external assistance

  • they set the regulatory and legal framework governing relief assistance.

It acknowledged that, in practice, international relief effort had often been criticized for ignoring, sidelining or actively undermining local capacities, with the problems leading to tense and dysfunctional relationship between states and international agencies. Examples were brought forward from the response to the 2004 Asia Tsunami (Telford et al. 2006), in Indonesia (Willitts-King 2009), in Afghanistan (Ghani et al. 2005) and in the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Grunewald and Binder 2010), amongst others. Glaring problems included exclusion from humanitarian coordination and decision making, lack of use of local language or knowledge of local culture, influx of international personnel to displace local ones or create staffing vacuum in local structures, dual bureaucracy, and general lack of respect for the authority of those in the government. An IFRC survey (IFRC 2007) indicated that a high proportion of respondents reported that some international agencies failed to inform the authorities of their activities. A major evaluation of the clusters approach concluded that “clusters largely exclude national and local actors and often fail to link with, build on, or support existing coordination and response mechanisms” (Streets et al. 2010).

One of the best documented recent examples of the contentious relationship between a government and the international humanitarian community is the response to the 2010 Pakistan floods, in part thanks to reviews by both the international humanitarian community and the Government itself (NDMA 2011a, b; DARA 2011). Pakistan has developed a strong, though under-resourced, National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) following the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. As in most Asian countries, it also used military actors extensively as first responders and as part of the relief efforts. While the Pakistan Government was quick to appeal for international assistance, and the eventual Floods and Emergency Response Plan was the UN’s largest ever appeal, the Government was clear that it was in the lead. According to DARA,12

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