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Be prepared: Op-ed by Jan Egeland on launch of Global Emergency Fund

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Originally published
Be Prepared


As the saying goes, much of life is timing. Nowhere is this truer than in an emergency, be it a natural disaster, a disease outbreak or deadly violence. In all these cases, speedy humanitarian response is critical for saving lives. The way we currently finance humanitarian aid, however, is anything but speedy. Delays cost lives. We can, and must, do better.

Here's how to start. The United Nations is spearheading the launch of a $500 million Global Emergency Fund to be used by aid agencies at the earliest possible moment, wherever and wherever a crisis strikes. The Fund's goal is simple: within 72 hours, provide aid workers with sufficient funding to jump-start lifesaving relief operations when most lives are on the line.

In emergencies, reliable funding is essential. Imagine if your local fire department had to petition the mayor for money to turn on the water every time a fire broke out. Now imagine a similar situation in humanitarian hot spots around the globe. Just like the fire brigade, aid workers need to tap into timely, predictable funding sources so that lifesaving aid can be provided when it's most needed.

Unfortunately, humanitarian funding is now anything but timely or reliable. Shifting political interests contribute to unpredictable funding, as does the media's fleeting attention span. Also, even well-intentioned government bureaucracies do not turn on a dime, nor can they quickly cut checks.

As a result, funding often arrives too late to help in the earliest days of a crisis. Even appeals launched after a sudden crisis like an earthquake fail to attract timely funding. On average, only 16% of funds are provided for "flash" appeals during the critical first month of a crisis. Often it takes longer. In Guyana and the Philippines, it took donors six months to provide even 20% of the funding needed to assist nearly four million people suffering from floods this year.

Even in high-profile crises, donor pledges often turn up late. In Darfur, despite significant donor pledges and newly opened access, aid workers were stymied by a four-month funding delay that left a million displaced people without basic assistance. Once funding began to flow, the aid community quickly got 12,000 relief workers on the ground and significantly ratcheted up relief efforts.

We will save lives with this Global Emergency Fund. We will also save money. Prevention, as we all know, is cheaper than the cure. Take last year's locust crisis in the Sahel. If a Global Emergency Fund had been in place, we would have had the $9 million needed to spray the locust larvae and prevent them from hatching.

But no funds materialized. The larvae soon hatched, and locust swarms ate their way across 12 African nations. The U.N. then was forced to launch a new $100 million appeal -- more than 10 times the original amount -- to pay for expensive food aid.

The potential lifesaving benefits of such a Fund are clear. But how will the U.N. ensure that management of Fund resources is as exemplary as its goals?

Full transparency and stringent management oversight are the sine qua non of our work, and this Fund will be no exception. Just as we are accountable to the populations we serve world-wide, so too are we are accountable to our donors, our partners, and the public -- all of whom have a right to know how their money is being used.

To that end, the Fund will benefit from both internal and external management audits, as well as audits from every U.N. agency that draws on it. All financial pledges and expenditures will be tracked on a publicly accessible Web site, providing donors with maximum visibility for their contributions.

To date, countries have pledged nearly $200 million to the Global Emergency Fund. Significantly, most of these pledges are in addition to their contributions to the U.N.'s annual humanitarian appeal. I urge other nations, as well as the private sector, to support this Fund in a way that is commensurate with their economic influence. European governments, with their commitment to provide development assistance that equals 0.7% of GDP, should play a leading role.

The tsunami crisis demonstrated just how generous governments, corporations and the public can be. Let's make this the rule, not the exception, for all humanitarian crises. I can think of no better place to start than with a Global Emergency Fund.

The need is urgent; the plan, feasible; the results, invaluable. We have no excuses: We know what needs to be done to save lives. We need this Fund. It is the responsibility of all. And it will benefit all.

Mr. Egeland is the United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.