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UNASUR builds on Chile’s experience in efforts to prevent regulatory problems in future disasters

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by Isabelle Granger, IFRC

We interviewed Bernardo Castro, Chief of Cabinet, Director of the National Office of Emergency of the Government of Chile, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, about recent steps by UNASUR to develop a regional manual on mutual assistance in the event of disasters.

Why is it important for the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to develop the manual for mutual assistance in the event of a disaster in one of its member countries?

Since Chile was asked to assume the presidency of the high level-working group of risk management in 2013, we started to develop an action plan to implement the objectives of this important organization that unifies the southern nations, and the issue of the disaster risk management was certainly among them. We, the nations, are linked by a common factor, which are the situations of emergency, caused by natural forces or human activity. Taking into consideration that we are all located in the zone of the Pacific Ring of Fire, what will unite these nations in the south in the future will be the disasters and emergencies they face.

In this way, having taken the goals of this union of nations as the conceptual framework for this working group, we elaborated an action plan in which we defined strategic objectives and lines of action. As a result of Chile’s experience, we believe that international aid, mutual aid and cooperation are very important matters around which all countries should have a common language and protocols to allow us to be more efficient and effective toward our purpose of supporting those in need.

Therefore, among all the alternatives we could have developed, we decided to propose the organization of a manual for mutual assistance in situations of disasters and emergencies as a good way to make something specific instead of presenting merely declarative aims. What we did next was to take the Andean community CAPRADE guide for international humanitarian assistance as a reference. This instrument had already been approved by several members of the Andean community and benefited from technical advice from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Moreover, in our view, this guide incorporates fundamental elements, including matters related with the basic principles of humanitarian assistance, the IDRL Guidelines, and in particular specific guidance for the ways in which assistance should be given as set out in the Sphere Standards. Hence we think this manual will be a powerful tool that will allow a much more efficient and effective cooperation among countries in a disaster situation, something that will surely happen.

What experience does Chile have in the management of international disaster assistance and how relevant is the manual of mutual assistance for Chile?

I think that what motivated us to make this proposal was the experience we went through as a result of the earthquake of 27 February 2010. Unfortunately, there was a lack of knowledge in the country among those responsible for the administration of disaster risk management at the time. As a result, it was very difficult to uphold the basic principles of humanitarian assistance.

First, it was very difficult for Chile to determine during the damage assessment whether international assistance was actually required or not; and when Chile finally decided to call for assistance, it was already too late - a lot of help had already arrived in the country. That is to say, the basic principle which states that help should not be sent unless it had been requested was infringed. In fact, we received a lot of important aid with the countries’ best intentions and generosity, but due to lack of coordination, systematization and calibration of the aid in terms of what was really required, this help turned into a problem. We had field hospitals that arrived with crews that spoke a language not known by the people of the receiving city, equipment without manuals explaining how to operate it, medications without corresponding certifications, and I could give many more similar examples. This experience motivated us to become more demanding regarding the establishment of procedures and protocols on humanitarian assistance. For this, I found the IDRL Guidelines the clearest and most precise instrument regarding the “dos” and “don’ts” in those cases.

Recently, as you may know, on 1 April we had a new earthquake and we applied these protocols. As established there, the government, in this case Chile, could determine that international assistance was not required. This was in fact what Chile determined, and therefore through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs we communicated to all countries that Chile at that moment did not need international assistance. While some neighbor countries motivated by a spirit of solidarity sent aid anyway, because it was mainly water and other basic items, it did not become a problem.

In addition, we are making an effort to avoid cases such as those we faced in the past when we received five tons of rice, or five thousand toothpaste tubes or five tons of noodles. Today we are asking local and international companies which want to cooperate to deliver a box that we have called the “four per four”, containing food for four persons for four days, properly identified, in order to make the aid more efficient. We believe that initiatives such as producing protocols, documents and manuals will benefit by providing a common tool for all countries collaborating in the face of emergencies in the future.