Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow: Managing the Risk of Humanitarian Crises

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Report: Time to abandon broken, reactive approach to aid

At first glance, the people of Tacloban in the Central Philippines and Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR) have little in common. They are separated by continents and oceans, and share no common language or cultural heritage.

This changed at the end of 2013. Both cities were affected by massive calamities that dominated global headlines. Tacloban was flattened by Typhoon Haiyan – the largest storm to ever make landfall – in early November. Bangui erupted into violence after months of tension and years of neglect boiled over.

For the first time these disasters – although hugely different in nature – saw the two countries lumped together. Both were classified as ‘L3’ emergencies – the severest rating the UN uses for humanitarian crises.

However, the people of Tacloban and Bangui shared one other thing in common. Both had been let down by an international aid system that prioritizes reaction over anticipation. Both these disasters could have been anticipated, and, some of their worst effects could have been prevented.

Fund risk, not consequence

This idea – that aid should anticipate and prevent, not just react and treat – is compellingly made in a new report released today by OCHA. Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow outlines in detail the disconnect between how aid groups analyse risk, and how donors allocate funds.

“If we have any chance of stopping the suffering, we need to prevent it from happening in the first place; we need to address the root causes of crises, not just the symptoms," says UN Deputy Humanitarian Chief, Kyung-Wha Kang.

Consider this: each year the UN and the European Commission compiles a list of countries considered most at risk to natural disasters and large scale social conflict. This information is publically available.

CAR was ranked third highest for risk heading into 2014 – before the latest crisis began. The crisis was anticipated. But despite this analysis, despite the fact that CAR was considered the third ‘riskiest’ country in the world, aid groups working there have consistently struggled to raise funds. Despite this extraordinarily high risk level, CAR is one of the lowest recipients of aid – it was only the 78th largest recipient of development aid in 2013

$38 trillion dollars

The report says that this shift needs to be made urgently, citing the growing human and financial cost of disasters and conflict.

“The number of people affected by humanitarian crises has almost doubled over the past decade and is expected to keep rising,” it says. “The cost of international humanitarian aid has almost trebled in the last 10 years, and responders are being asked to do more, at a greater cost, than ever before.”

Between 1980 and 2012, disasters cost the global economy US$38 trillion – equivalent to half the value of the world economy in 2013.

Moving from anticipation to prevention

Of course, some crises cannot be prevented by humanitarian organizations or by development funding. The violence that has gripped CAR was triggered by a political break down that has split communities across the country along religious lines. But this political crisis occurred in a context of chronic underdevelopment and neglect. More aid – and more aid that was tailored to the specific risks of CAR – could have gone some way to preventing the crisis escalating .

The link between anticipation and prevention is clearer in the Philippines. Tacloban sits on a small bay. In recent decades, the city’s foreshore became home to some of the central Philippines’ poorest people. They built simple and flimsy homes on public land. It was shocking, but no one should have been surprised that it was these people who suffered the most when Typhoon Haiyan hit.

“Risk analysis is woefully underutilised in decision-making,” says Ms. Kang. “Information is available but it does not always translate into action, perhaps in part because of difficult financial structures or perhaps because of institutional and political obstacles.”

Watch the launch of the report live on UN Web TV (10AM EST, 31 March 2014).

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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