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Disaster-Stricken Communities Need Solidarity, Not Charity, Say Experts at Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment

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Economic and Social Council
2014 Substantive Session
27th Meeting (AM)

Global humanitarian aid actors should adopt policies of solidarity with strife-torn and disaster-stricken communities rather than charity, and ensure aid workers had the requisite skills to deliver their specific mandates, experts on the matter told the Economic and Social Council this afternoon.

“It’s time to come to grips with the humanitarian fundraising industry. It’s too much of a cargo cult. Too much feeds on helplessness,” said Nigel Fisher, United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, during a panel discussion on effective assistance during the Council’s humanitarian affairs segment’s second day.

People affected by crises wanted a hand-up in the form of paid employment and education for their children rather than a hand-out, he said. But, United Nations and other international aid actors were too protective of their mandates and reluctant to share information with each other and with local organizations. In other instances, relief agencies were ill-equipped for the task before them. In Haiti, for example, many aid groups, with no experience providing shelter, built slums for people left homeless by the 2009 earthquake instead of viable housing.

Before showing up on the scene, a risk and vulnerability analysis must be conducted in order to better understand the capacities and weaknesses of the country’s institutions, and the state of the rule of law, land tenure and socioeconomic development, he said. Moreover, aid groups must partner with the private sector, rather than compete with it.

Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, agreed. “Operational effectiveness can only take us so far. Policies matter,” she said, noting that feeding the hungry by dumping rich countries’ surplus food onto strife-torn and disaster-stricken poor countries often destroyed local farmers’ businesses.

It was crucial to have a single or joint assessment team, rather than too many teams, as was the case in the Philippines after last year’s devastating typhoon, she continued. Raising the bar for skills capacity, especially for workers going into war zones was also essential. Furthermore, politicians and the development community needed to be lobbied to prevent armed conflict by the tackling root causes. “That advocacy is paramount if we want to prevent an increase of humanitarian needs in the future,” she said.

Echoing those concerns, Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, as well as the panel’s moderator, said requirements for aid were far outstripping response capacity. By 2030, it was estimated that 40 per cent of the world’s population would live in areas of water stress. By 2050, food demand would grow 50 per cent. Finding effective ways to distribute finite humanitarian resources was crucial. In some instances, recognized humanitarian agencies should take a back seat to those that could provide aid faster, such as local groups. Each humanitarian actor must understand and accept the interests and motivations of others and find ways to institute best practices.

In the lead-up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the panel should look at how to support current humanitarian capacities, the requisite mechanisms to do so, and how to move from largely response-driven efforts to more risk-oriented multi-year efforts, she said.

Ibrahim O. Dabbashi ( Libya), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said the international humanitarian response system was changing, as countries set up national disaster management authorities; the private sector, civil society and other new actors were increasingly taking a larger role, and direct cash transfers were increasingly sent to affected people.

Citing his own country’s experience, Halil Afsarata, Head of the Strategy Development Department at the Prime Ministry, Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) of Turkey, said the Department had been created five years ago to streamline the Government’s various disaster management strategies. It was spearheading the 2013-2017 strategic plan for disaster management, and collaborating with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and other actors to carry it out.

In 2012, Turkey had provided $1 billion in relief to Haiti, Syria, Myanmar and other countries, making it the third largest contributor of humanitarian aid, after the United States and the United Kingdom, he said. To date, Turkey had accepted 1 million Syrian refugees. Approximately 220,000 were housed in 22 container and tent-city temporary protection centres in 10 provinces; the rest were spread throughout the country. The camps provided basic food and medical supplies, but psychosocial support was also vital. The Syrian humanitarian crisis had a $4.37 billion price tag for Turkey, which was also providing shelter, food, hygiene and medical equipment to internally displaced persons inside Syria through ICRC. Moreover, Turkey was giving aid to Iraq.

Muhammad Sani-Sidi, Director-General of Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, discussed the Agency’s national disaster management framework, rescue and contingency plans, including its early warning systems developed in conjunction with other Government agencies, and with support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration. As President of the Regional Committee of Disaster Management in West Africa for the 2013-2014 period, Nigeria had gained insight into neighbouring nations’ disaster management agencies, he said.

All such national agencies must have predictable funding to operate effectively, he emphasized, calling for a common platform towards that end. After the 2012 floods in Nigeria, which displaced 2.3 million people and caused $16.8 billion in damages, the Agency had collaborated with the private sector to raise funds to support humanitarian interventions in the country, particularly in areas where insurgents were present. However, last year Nigeria’s humanitarian crises were more due to conflict than natural disasters. In March, 9 million people reportedly were affected by conflict in the country’s northeast; 1.5 million of them were in need of dire humanitarian aid.

Two panellists, speaking via videoconference from the Philippines, discussed their experience with Super Typhoon Yolanda, which had devastated the central part of the country in November 2013.

Barbette Badocdoc, Media and Networking Officer of Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Lawyering Services, recounted her family’s experience of survival. After the storm, some international non-governmental organizations arrived to install huge medical tents and provide sanitation kits, ready-to-eat food, clothing and baby supplies. In her culture, mothers traditionally were the gatekeepers of legal claims for relief aid. She then shed light on the “Access to Benefits and Claims”, or ABC, process set up by her organization after the disaster to provide shelter relief. It was funded by Oxfam, UNHCR and other agencies.

Inday Pizon, Executive Director of Regional Development Incorporated under the National Coalition of Rural Women/PKKK, stressed the importance of involving local leaders in humanitarian responses. She and other members of the Coalition’s response management team were trained to carry out the “Eyes Wide Open” action plan for local Filipino villages, in coordination with international agencies. With strong backing from local leaders and volunteers, the Christian Aid relief agency had supported 6,000 families; the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had given emergency employment to 1,000 people; and OXFAM had donated food. ActionAid distributed survival kits to the elderly and marginalized groups.

During the ensuing discussion, delegates asked the panellists to elaborate on current challenges to making aid more effective, as well as strategies and best practices, including the approach to addressing the challenges that arose from the crisis in Syria. Mr. Fisher, when asked about whether that aid had been effective, pointed to mixed results. Despite many achievements, there were great impediments, notably the politicization of aid, and a lack of solidarity among humanitarian actors, resulting in competing claims of effectiveness. He was particularly concerned by the backward trend in Syria in regard to respecting international humanitarian law.

However, Monia Alsaleh of Syria affirmed her Government’s commitment to humanitarian assistance, in accordance with international humanitarian law. She agreed with the panellists’ assertion that as long as Governments and international actors did not recognize the root causes of crisis, no solution would be found. However, she questioned how cash transfers could be used in Syria while unilateral sanctions were imposed on her country. Mr. Fisher, while informing her that the World Food Programme (WFP) was looking at issuing cash transfers, stressed the need to help people earn income. Furthermore, sovereign Governments had a responsibility to provide aid to their populations.

Ms. Alsaleh also inquired why Turkey was only registering refugees with its Government and not with UNHCR, to which Mr. Afsarata said his Government was working with several United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to provide education, health care, medicine and other basic services. Ms. Amos also urged that the Syrian Government simplify procedures and enable aid to be delivered through the most effective routes, rather than the current situation where they had to cross conflict lines to reach people.

Mr. Bessler of Switzerland focused on the issue of certifying or licensing aid workers and organizations to ensure they were qualified, to which Mr. Asfarata emphasized that aid workers of United Nations agencies already were the most qualified in the field. While some panellists and participants supported certification, it was noted that actors had different expectations of coordination. Much more must be done to update guidelines and skill sets.

Ms. Amos, responding to Mr. Lyngroth of Norway on measures the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was taking to involve local leaders in establishing priority areas for development assistance, as well as the role education played in humanitarian aid, also highlighted how United Nations country teams were in constant contact with local authorities to determine priorities. Local networks must be kept open and people could not be railroaded. Adding to that, Mr. Fisher pointed out that experience showed getting kids quickly back into school was one of best ways to stabilize their environment and help them recover from trauma.

Delegations were also interested in providing insurance for disaster-prone countries, with Philip Edward Reed of the United Kingdom asking about efforts to scale up cash transfers. Mr. Asfarata noted that in the past five years Turkey had changed the law to make earthquake insurance compulsory for new home owners. Mainstreaming short-term cash transfers and linking them to safety nets for the poor, such as Brazil’s “Bolsa Familia” cash stipend programme, was an example that could be studied, Mr. Fisher said.

Strengthening national Governments’ ability to respond was also brought by Ms. Aviles of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to which Mr. Sani-Sidi concurred, saying that, rather than just doling out supplies, capacity-building was essential. International support was needed only when the task at hand was glaringly overwhelming for national Governments. Addressing the root causes of crises — which were more the result of armed conflict than natural disasters in Africa — was vital.

Ms. Amos, recapping the discussion, observed that speakers had focused on how crucial it was to understand the specific contexts of crises, as well as national and local needs and capacity. Also stressed during the question and answer segment was the importance of supporting both national and local priorities; the role of policy in operational effectiveness; the role of advocacy; preparedness and early warning systems; and the crucial link between humanitarian and long-term development initiatives.

Participants included representatives of Brazil, Sweden, United States, Finland and Spain.

The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 June, to conclude its humanitarian affairs segment.

For information media • not an official record