Responding to international humanitarian crises

While many organisations now claim to provide humanitarian support, lack of technical capacity plagues their abilities


Syed Mohammad Ali July 24, 2014

The international humanitarian system comprises a wide range of organisations, including UN agencies, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, non-governmental organisations, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies, as well as government departments and the military.

The challenges of responding to humanitarian crises around the world are predicted to keep growing in terms of the scale and duration of disasters, and in terms of their complexity. Ongoing civil unrest, population density, inadequate infrastructure, alongside the increasing impacts of climate change, including droughts and flooding, pose an increasing humanitarian threat, especially to nations already struggling, and the poor and more vulnerable citizens within them.

Humanitarian emergencies created due to civil strife, for example, disrupt livelihoods and compel massive displacements of people fleeing the threat of violence. More than 172 million people were estimated to be effected by conflict in 2012 alone, which in turn displaced 35 million people. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have probably inflated these numbers. Natural disasters are another major problem affecting countries like Haiti, the Philippines, and Pakistan with increasing severity in recent years.

Although the international humanitarian system has grown in size, and it has more resources at its disposal than ever before, it is still not adequately able to effectively deal with urgent crises. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has just released a report, which is very critical of humanitarian agencies and their existing response mechanisms. While many more development organisations now claim to provide humanitarian support in the effort to secure access to funds allocated for this purpose, a lack of technical capacity plagues their ability to respond to specific aspects of emergency response.

The MSF assessment is based on interviews with humanitarian workers, and analyses the international response to the ongoing African and Middle Eastern conflicts. It points out how existing relief efforts are marred by logistical constraints, which limits the provision of assistance to harder-to-reach communities, which are in most urgent need of support. There is a resulting bias towards easier projects implemented in more accessible areas, which in turn leads to ‘elite capture’ of resources and further marginalisation.

MSF is especially critical of the tendency of subcontracting within the current disaster response system, whereby funds go from the donors to the UN agencies to an implementing NGO to another local NGO. These agencies all use part of the allocated funds towards their own costs. As a result, there is not much left in the field, especially for areas that are hard and difficult to reach. MSF also cites the concerns of humanitarians in the field, who complain that they have to spend more time reporting their activities back to donor agencies instead of being able to spend time with affected populations.

With a global humanitarian summit announced for 2016, this is the right time to initiate debates about how to make broader humanitarian efforts more effective. Developing countries like our own, which have recently undergone major natural disasters and are currently experiencing conflict-related displacements as well, should provide needed input to this broader debate. Paying heed to relevant experiences encountered on the ground during times of crises would help ensure that a more effective international mechanism for disaster management can be put into place, which can in turn interact better with our own National Disaster Management Agency as well.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2014.

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