Mozambique: "You're wrong, Mrs. Machel, but we understand your point"

Originally published
The point she has made, however, is not trivial, and will require Africans to come to grips with their hangover from the colonial period and the realities of the demands created by emergencies --- logistics, logistics, logistics.

Mozambique's former first lady, Graca Machel, while flying over her flood ravaged country, angrily attacked the West for its slowness to respond to her country's flood emergency, saying:

"It seems the world has no conscience when it comes to human life."

While Mrs. Machel clearly has a point about the slowness of the initial international response to Mozambique's floods, she is absolutely wrong to charge that the "world has no conscience when it comes to human life."

That is an obviously emotionally driven statement, one that could easily and just as emotionally be countermanded by a charge that there is plenty of disrespect for the value of human life within her own region of Africa to last everyone a lifetime.

There are many throughout the world, Africa included, who have devoted their lives quietly and heroically, without fanfare and heraldry, and for precious little that is material in return, to save lives, make lives better, and to help people reach one rung higher. Much of this work has gone on in Mozambique. Mrs. Machel has confused her emotions of the moment, which are understandable and bear our respect, with the slowness of bureaucracies to turn.

There are built in delays that divide those nations that are distant from an emergency from those who are there, on the scene. For the most part, African nations in the region reacted as they should have, in some cases exceeding expectations, responding quickly and magnificently. That local and regional reaction has to happen, because the region has --- or should have --- the closest ambulances and fire trucks to the emergency scene, and it simply takes time for the wheels of response to get started abroad.

Obviously, the bureaucracies abroad need to be sensitized to narrow the time lag between the local and regional emergency response and the global response.

Perhaps the key point in this entire dialog is that to narrow that response time will require the world to better prioritize what it considers important.

NCN has opined on several occasions that here in the United States, we need to develop an entirely new strategic imperative from the ones employed during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. We believe our strategic imperative here ought to be something like:

"Uplift people!"

Let's hope this is what Mrs. Machel meant. If so, then we agree with the former first lady and will work with her to advocate improved international emergency response mechanisms.

But we must urge caution when making such broad generalizations as she made --- most people, everywhere, care very much about the value of human life. It is human nature to do so. It is abnormal not to respect that value. Our challenge is to build the institutional support mechanisms to more accurately reflect these truths.

With regard to the American response, the US State Department says it moved as quickly as it could, but acknowledged that it had concluded that initial flooding in February could be handled regionally. It then came to realize during the second round of flooding in late February that it would have to pitch in. The American commanding general of the US task force now responding said the Pentagon was notified on March 3 to generate a response and aircraft were airborne on the next day.

NCN is on the record suggesting the Americans at the decision-making level and at the decision-recommendation level were sleeping at the wheel, failing to do what they are paid to do, which is to anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. But all this is worth examining at some later time once the crisis has subsided and more of the facts are available.

One of the big lessons learned in the USA from the 1994 Rwandan Genocide was that for us to react to any kind of crisis in Africa, one needs to think in terms of logistics, logsitics, logistics. Aircraft carriers do not support 5,000 sailors at sea for six months without logistics; transport aircraft do not fly 8,000 miles without logistics; helicopters don't just hop across the Atlantic Ocean; and no one has supplies to do anything without logistics. Work in any American military command center and you will see that the dominant issues discussed during any crisis focus on how to supply the logistics, what people and systems are available for deployment, and how to move all those forces and their supplies into place so they are there when they are needed. This stuff doesn't just appear by magicand, by the way, nor do fruit and vegetables at the grocery market. It's logistics, logistics, logistics, and logistics demands anticipation, anticipation, anticipation.

We need, from a military standpoint, pre-identified staging bases and ports, streamlined emergency procedures allowing activation of those bases and ports, and forward logistics depots to hold heavy equipment, cumbersome supplies, and "first-needed" emergency response equipment. Perhaps this is something that Africans need to explore with the US later downstream --- if you have a "need for speed," you have to have things positioned forward and certain minimum essential base rights have to be pre-approved. Africans have understandably shown a reluctance to allow that, having great sensitivity following the colonial period to national sovereignty and territorial integrity, but perhaps they need to re-visit this issue.

Readers will recall that this matter arose from the Office of South African President Mbeki, when South African bureaucrats were delaying the arrival of American and British help by quibbling about whether they had been asked for base landing rights with sufficient respect. Perhaps the proper respect was not there, we don't know, but for sure what was lacking was a pre-plan, a contingency plan that could have streamlined the whole endeavor.

In any event, all of us who might serve as sidewalk superintendants needs to step aside now or risk being run over as aid pours in from around the world.

It is expected that today some 50 helicopters and 100 boats will be criss-crossing Mozambique searching for people to rescue and delivering sorely needed supplies in an international relief effort that is indeed now massive in scale.

A specially configured USAF C-130 aircraft intended for unconventional warfare operations will employ its all weather, day-night, and foliage penetration surveillance capabilities to help authorities assess the depth of damage to Mozambique and to assist in identifying any missed pockets of survivors in need of rescue. Cameras can photograph a single person from a height of 10,000 feet and special imaging sensors can spot life screened by foliage and darkness.

Heavy rains are expected later today. Estimates are 250,000 Mozambicans are living in some 72 aid camps, and moving food and medical supplies to them has now taken a top place on the agenda. Thus far, reports from the field indicate that the many nations who have responded with a great deal of aid and equipment are working together surprisingly well. They have divided up the country into sectors of responsibility and set up divisions of effort to make search and rescue and aid deliveries as efficient as possible given that there was no pre-established command and control mechanism to coordinate all this. It appears that people's instincts, their good judgement, and sense of mission have overridden the immediate need for a centralized control authority. Improvisation seems to be working for the moment, but you can bet your bottom dollar that some kind of centralized arrangements are being set up to achieve efficiencies and avoid accidents.

Maputo airport is a typical example of the coordination challenges that are popping up every minute of the day. It has very limited aviation aid equipment and air traffic control is an issue. Buchizya Mseteka of Reuters summed it up this way:

"Air traffic control for the scores of aircraft scouring for survivors or delivering food to remote areas is done with common sense, good eyesight and the grace of God."

God's grace is only extended for certain periods of time. Eventually, God expects we humans to get our act organized and you can look for that to happen over the days ahead.

Long-term, if Africans want faster and better response from the West to emergencies such as this, they will have to come to terms with the concept of forward deployment and pre-approved base and landing rights. For the West, if we are to do what we do best, then we have to establish a new strategic imperative, which will re-order our priorities, and enable us to be better prepared and to better anticipate when to kick ourselves into action.