Angola + 6 more

Economic and Social Council reviews international humanitarian responses to natural disasters and complex emergencies

United Nations Resident Coordinators Stress Need for Preventive Measures, Coordination, Long-Term Funding for Durable Reconstruction
The Economic and Social Council was told this morning that long-term development and prevention were the best responses to natural disasters and complex emergencies in developing countries, as it hears presentations by the United Nations Coordinators working in China, Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Burundi, Angola, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

During two panel discussions -- one focusing on natural calamities such as floods and hurricanes; and the other on 'complex' disasters involving such difficulties as internal conflicts, massive population displacements and hunger -- the Coordinators said vulnerabilities, such as poverty and lack of basic health measures and infrastructure, made matters much worse in times of disaster.

The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators -- who manage United Nations aid and development programmes with the cooperation of host Governments -- described for the Council specific emergency situations, the international responses to them and lessons learned.

Kerstin Leitner, United Nations Resident Coordinator for China, said 'century floods' in the south and northeast of the country in 1998 had led to a well-coordinated and effective United Nations response, including a successful worldwide appeal for donations. But, she added, an appeal to fund longer-term disaster prevention measures had drawn scant response -- a discouraging outcome, as research had shown that the costs of natural disasters in China were growing as rapidly as the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

David Lockwood, Resident Coordinator for Bangladesh, said floods experienced in 1998 were among the worst in Bangladeshi history and had affected 25 to 30 million people. With considerable rehabilitation needs, responses had included a massive distribution effort of seeds that had yielded a bumper crop this spring, which had, in turn, aided the recovery considerably.

Paul Oberti, Resident Coordinator for the Dominican Republic, said a comprehensive programme on emergency supply and reconstruction was put into effect in the Dominican Republic after Hurricane Georges struck in September 1998. One of the most successful features of the programme, which was still ongoing, was that it was being implemented with the active participation of local people through neighbourhood organizations and community committees.

Zoraida Mesa, Resident Coordinator for Honduras, told the meeting that 1998's Hurricane Mitch, an especially severe storm, had struck a country characterized by poverty, social and ecological vulnerability, and inequity. The lack of long-term strategies and plans had increased the high economic and social risk in the future.

The dialogue with national delegations that followed focused, among other things, on specific measures taken to coordinate relief activities; methods for making the transition from emergency responses to long-term development programmes; and -- from various countries affected by natural disasters -- appeals for international help that could keep such natural events from exacting such heavy tolls from year to year. A representative of the Dominican Republic pointed out that in less than 12 hours last year, a hurricane had cost the country 14 per cent of its GDP, half the country's annual exports, and 43 per cent of its national income. Cuba contended that environmental damage was having the effect of worsening natural disasters. He urged countries to strive to meet the terms of international conventions and agreements related to environmental protection.

On the subject of complex emergencies, Kathleen Cravero-Kristofferson, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Burundi, said the 'relief-development gap' was not a mere theory but a concrete reality for many in Burundi. The United Nations country team in Burundi had a clear vision of what should come after initial humanitarian aid: a regeneration of society, peace and reconstruction. But the obstacles and challenges remained daunting, she reported.

Franceso Strippoli, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Angola, said that after three decades of intermittent armed conflict, broken by only two brief interludes of peace, the great majority of Angolans were sinking to new depths of poverty. Extensive, long-term reconstruction would be necessary when, and if, peace was achieved. In the meanwhile, it was important that donor funding not be placed into boxes with overly specific labels. Funding should be flexible so as to meet changing needs in the country.

David Morton, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, remarked that resolution of the ongoing humanitarian crisis of food insecurity in the country was directly linked to economic progress. The pressure to produce more food was leading to rapid environmental degradation, he added, which, in turn, was making the country more susceptible to flood damage and future natural disasters.

The following discussion centered, among other things, on the apparent conundrum that in countries disrupted by internal conflicts, there could not be development and progress without peace; equally, there could not be peace without development and progress. A representative of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea said the impression he had of the morning's debate was that natural disasters were tragic, but that man-made disasters were also shameful, as they could have been prevented.

Also participating in the morning's debates were representatives of Germany, Japan, Guatemala, the United States, China, Ireland, Morocco, Honduras, World Health Organization, Sweden, Argentina, Lesotho, Poland, Canada and Finland.

The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 3 p.m. today for a general discussion of special economic, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance.

Statements

KERSTIN LEITNER, United Nations Resident Coordinator for China, said that during 1998 there were 'century floods' in the south and northeast of China. Although there was some warning and some preparatory work was undertaken, a great deal of damage resulted. Efforts to protect human life were extremely successful. With some 228 million people affected, 4,100 were killed.

For the first time, China had requested that the United Nations Office for the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launch an international appeal for emergency relief, she continued. The OCHA, in cooperation with the UNDP country office and the Resident Coordinator for China, immediately prepared for an assessment mission. The work of the mission ended with a United Nations appeal, which was widely publicized, both nationally and internationally. The appeal document showed what the needs were and identified the relevant United Nations agencies targeted for receiving donations. The option of where to make such donations was left to donors. While international attention was heavily focused in the south, the United Nations team succeeded in channelling some assistance to the northern areas, in the interests of equity.

Information compiled by China over several decades indicated that the costs of natural disasters were growing as quickly as China's gross domestic product (GDP), she noted. The United Nations country team thus launched a second, open-ended appeal to support national measures for longer-term rehabilitation, prevention, and preparedness. Regrettably, the response by the international community to that appeal had been very insufficient.

On of the lessons learnt from the Chinese floods was that the United Nations system could work together successfully and bring synergies to bear that were beneficial for nationally and internationally funded relief operations. Although China had mounted a marvellous relief and rescue campaign of its own, it benefited from the United Nations involvement, as the Organization was able to show them new methods, including how to target beneficiaries.

DAVID LOCKWOOD, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Bangladesh, said the development process in Bangladesh was interwoven with the sequence of natural disasters. The 1998 floods - which had lasted eight weeks -- were among the worst in Bangladeshi history. To address the damage, a recovery process had been underway for the last 12 months. Noting that floods were annual events in Bangladesh, he said that during last year's floods alone, 25 to 30 million people had been affected. While there were some specific benefits associated with the annual flooding, damage to food crops had to be countered and food provided to those who were without.

International assistance had been sought three weeks after the last flood, Mr. Lockwood continued. The initial appeal by the Government had been packaged in one document that requested $600 million in assistance. The amount received for the appeal was slightly over that requested, which was evidence of the need and of a clear commitment from the international community.

The relief appeal focussed mainly on food needs, and those were fulfilled, he said. The Government was able to release its stores of emergency food to those in need, supported by the commitment of the international community to provide food. A massive distribution effort of seeds was made, resulting in a bumper crop this spring, which, in turn, contributed to the recovery considerably.

The United Nations coordination had been effective and had improved team cooperation, he said. The members of the United Nations country team had complemented each other appropriately. The multilateral banks, the World Bank and the Asian Bank had made significant efforts to improve loan availability and funding. That had greatly facilitated the Government's reaction to the crisis. The original intent had been to launch a rehabilitation package, but that was found to be unnecessary, due to the financial institutions swift reaction.

PAUL OBERTI, United Nations Resident Coordinator for the Dominican Republic, said Hurricane Georges had ravaged the entire country in September 1998. It was the most serious storm to strike the nation since 1979. Without collaboration from OCHA, the UNDP, and the international donor community, effective relief operations would not have been possible. The Hurricane killed 300 people and left 300,000 -- four per cent of the country's population -- living in emergency centres. There was also great damage to the agricultural sector and the telecommunications, electricity, water and transportation systems.

The United Nations agencies, and national and international counterparts held meetings soon after the storm struck to design a prompt and coordinated response, Mr. Oberti said. A preliminary evaluation of the damage was made. Based on resulting recommendations, a comprehensive programme on emergency supply and reconstruction was put into effect. The programme combined immediate measures with the introduction of income-generating activities in local communities. Most important, the programme -- which was still ongoing -- was being implemented with the active participation of local people through neighbourhood organizations and community committees.

Among lessons learned was the need to address the fact that most agencies did not have specific funds for emergencies, which had meant that their interventions could be scattered and coordination somewhat dispersed, he said. It was also noted that donors mostly reacted to their own constituencies, generally opting for direct interventions with the affected populations, often through local or international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or churches, thereby allowing for little intervention of the central or local Governments.

ZORAIDA MESA, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Honduras, said that when reviewing the United Nations response to the Hurricane Mitch disaster in Honduras and future rehabilitation, reconstruction and development programmes, the context must be considered in which such a disaster struck: an environment characterized by poverty, social and ecological vulnerability, and inequity. Long-term strategies and enforcement policies were missing, increasing high economic and social risk in the future. In the past, the United Nations had participated in the elaboration of long-term development strategies, which considered natural phenomena among other things. Reviving awareness and interest in long-term development issues and in strengthening national- and local-level warning capacities remained a challenge for the international community and for the United Nations system, in particular.

The immediate response of the United Nations system to the emergency could be considered most effective and well coordinated on account of the good preparation of each agency, the Resident Coordinator continued. The weakness of relevant Government structures, not only highlighted the United Nations role, but made it essential. The preparation of the transitional appeal was an excellent exercise in cooperation that had confirmed the good spirit of collaboration developed during the last years among the United Nations entities in Honduras. However, the short timetable in the preparation process -- at a time when all energies were devoted to manage the humanitarian response -- had not allowed for a comprehensive assessment of protracted emergency needs, the development of specific action plans, or active participation of the Government, donors or NGOs. Relatively meagre contributions were received in direct response to the appeal.

In the short- and medium-term the most lasting interventions the United Nations could make would be to strengthen mechanisms at the local level, ensuring an adequate transition from relief to rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. Towards that end, a number of projects were developed. Quality of life had decreased as a direct effect of the Hurricane. The master plan for reconstruction and transformation focused on transforming the society. The social context needed to be addressed in order to prevent an even more destructive disaster.

KATHLEEN CRAVERO-KRISTOFFERSON, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Burundi, said the relief/development gap was not a mere theory, it was a concrete reality for many people. The United Nations country team in Burundi had a clear vision of what should come after the initial humanitarian aid: a regeneration of society, peace and reconstruction. The obstacles and challenges to that goal remained overpowering in Burundi. Despite those problems, progress, peace and development were possible; but, one could not occur without the others. The current trend toward peace was encouraging. Much work had been done, and it formed the foundation for the multi-organizational work to come. Consultation was taking place at all levels to ensure coordinated action. A critical on-going dialogue between all groups was required, and commitment from all was vital.

FRANCESCO STRIPPOLI, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Angola, said Angola's current situation amounted to a humanitarian catastrophe. Many thousands of people could easily die if the international community was not there to address their needs. After three decades of intermittent armed conflict, peace had not been realized. The great majority of Angolans were sinking to new depths of poverty. There had been only two brief periods -- the last between 1995 and 1998 -- when peace had allowed some progress and development.

As many as 1.7 million people, most from productive agricultural areas, had been displaced to provincial capitals, thus cutting food supplies, he continued. Other problems were related to health; child mortality had increased significantly. Inter-agency collaboration had been vital for identifying the needs of the population and for deciding how they would be met effectively and efficiently. Various levels of Government also had been involved. An effort was being made to provide and secure sectors of arable land near population centres to allow increased food production and provide livelihood for displaced families. The coordination programme in place was being extended from the capital to the provinces, and operations would be expanded further, in as much as a hoped-for transition to peace allowed. Flexibility was important, as needs and circumstances changed rapidly.

When, and if, peace was achieved, Mr. Strippoli said, extensive, long-term reconstruction would be necessary. It was important that donor funding not be placed into boxes with overly specific labels. Funding should be flexible so that changing situations in the country -- and changing locations where aid was needed -- could be adjusted to. Capacity-building of national programmes for emergency response was critical; the Government had to learn how to manage such operations and how to respond to the social and economic declines that resulted from long-term conflict. Accurate analysis of each situation was important so that the most vulnerable populations received sufficient shares of the limited resources available. In any case, greater international attention to the situation in Angola was desperately needed.

DAVID MORTON, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, said the theme of the current Economic and Social Council segment was especially relevant with respect to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, since resolving the ongoing humanitarian crisis of food insecurity was directly linked to progress in recovery and rehabilitation. The pressure to produce more food was leading to rapid environmental degradation, which, in turn, was making the country more susceptible to flood damage and future natural disasters. The country was likely to achieve sustained food self-reliance only with economic recovery. Recovery programmes were extremely important for providing an exit strategy for the humanitarian programmes.

In the present political environment and policy framework, donors had tended to provide humanitarian aid, but had been reluctant to provide substantial support to recovery programmes, Mr. Morton said. Full coordination within and between the humanitarian programmes and the recovery/rehabilitation programmes was essential. The United Nations country team in the Republic of Korea had coordinated humanitarian programmes through the Consolidated Appeal Process, and the recovery and rehabilitation programmes through the roundtable process. There were direct linkages between the two, which were coordinated and complementary to each other.

Aid had mitigated a humanitarian catastrophe, he said. Conditions had improved for most people over the last two years, but there was still much hardship. Humanitarian aid needed to be sustained. Recovery and rehabilitation was taking place simultaneously with relief, to the extent that funding was available. The humanitarian aid was prompting the recovery, but economic recovery was the only long-term solution.

Discussion

On the subject of natural disasters, national delegations expressed interest, among other things, in specific measures taken to coordinate relief activities; methods for making the transition from emergency responses to long-term development programmes; and -- from various countries affected by natural disasters -- appeals for international help that could keep such natural events from exacting such heavy tolls from year to year. A representative of the Dominican Republic pointed out that in less than 12 hours last year, a hurricane had cost the country 14 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product, half the country's annual exports, and 43 per cent of its national income. A representative of China said it was important to stress the leading role to be played by national Governments in international relief operations carried out on their territories.

Responding to questions and comments, Ms. Leitner said, among other things, that there were a large number of man-made causes for natural disasters, and analyses of those causes were being given more attention. Mr. Lockwood remarked that the issue of transition between normal development functions and reconstruction functions were interwoven in countries where natural disasters were the norm. Mr. Oberti said the role of national Governments was absolutely crucial in the coordination of any relief effort, and the work of the United Nations system should be part of the work done by Governments to remedy the situation. Ms. Mesa told the meeting that Hurricane Mitch had accelerated a process of coordination in Honduras that was already underway and had incited donors to give more generously.

On the topic of complex emergencies, the dialogue with national delegations dwelt, among other things, on what a representative of Lesotho described as a conundrum -- that there could not be development and progress without peace, and there could not be peace without development and progress. Protection of humanitarian workers was discussed. The possible use in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea of seed potatoes and other crops developed for famine relief was suggested. How 'enabling environments' for peace and economic recovery could be established was debated, along with how transitions from emergency response to peaceful development could be protected without relapses into cycles of violence. The question also arose as to what crop expectations were for the coming year in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The representative of that country said the impression he had of the morning's debate was that natural disasters were tragic, but that man-made disasters were not only tragic, but shameful, as they could have been prevented. He said the causes of the problems in his country were wide-ranging. While thanking the international community for responses to date, he noted that more extensive and well-coordinated efforts were needed.

In response to questions and comments from the floor, Ms. Cravero-Kristofferson said while structural inequities in Burundi were being addressed, progress would be based, in part, on a transition in the country from fragile calm to durable peace. Mr. Strippoli remarked that humanitarian workers in Angola were risking their lives in carrying out their tasks. Thus, decisions on what activities to carry out and whether or not planes delivering supplies could be allowed to fly were made on a daily basis. Mr. Morton said that UNDP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) could be expected to give a very positive response to any aid programmes offered involving seed potatoes and other famine-relief crops.