Global: Cutting red tape in disaster response

NEW YORK, 15 June 2007 (IRIN) - After five years of research, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has finalised a set of guidelines to facilitate the delivery of international assistance in disasters.

The guidelines, which the IFRC hopes will be adopted by national governments to improve response to disasters, will be presented at a conference in late November to national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, which will be expected to promote them with their national government counterparts.

"They do not set up any new international system," IFRC Senior Legal Research Officer for the International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles programme (IDRL), David Fisher, said. "It will be up to governments to decide to what extent they incorporate them."

The IFRC research points to a set of common legal problems in international disaster aid that hamper its effectiveness, notably the bureaucratic barriers that arise when everyday laws are applied in extraordinary settings. Few governments have adequate disaster law in place, and when disaster strikes, this can hinder the rapid delivery of relief aid to survivors.

In an address to the American Society of International Law in Washington DC in March, Fisher cited some of the main problems that arose in disaster settings: well-intended but unwanted donations clogging up airports and logistics hubs, customs delays, visa requirements for aid workers and the lack of legal status for foreign relief agencies.

Where there has been too little regulation of incoming international aid, Fisher noted that host countries could often become inundated with amateur or poorly equipped teams. In other instances, commercial groups took advantage of the situation and imported goods under the guise of relief.

As a way of ensuring against a free-for-all, Fisher said that governments would be encouraged to use recognised humanitarian quality standards in determining which organisations would be granted legal status for disaster operations.

Brian Majewski, senior director, international policy and relations, of the American Red Cross, said most international aid agencies viewed the proposed legislation as beneficial to their operations as better local laws in disasters would help to "avoid the secondary disaster sometimes caused by a lack of coordination. These guidelines set forth a proactive way for governments and humanitarian organisations to address and identify steps and concerns that will reduce the hurdles to effective, efficient relief and find ways to assure accountability of NGOs through registration and accreditation," he said.

Majewski said some countries were already in the early stages of implementing the guidelines, and would be incorporating recommendations into local law in early 2008.