Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Natural disasters need a rapid response unit — now

The Haiti tragedy makes the case for an international aid ‘fire-bridge’ unanswerable, argues John O’Shea

Throughout my 32 years' activity as a pro-active humanitarian, a perpetual source of frustration to me has been the unnecessary extra suffering and loss of life that invariably occurs in the aftermath of disasters - largely because of the absence of a speedy, co-ordinated response from the international community.

Haiti is a recent prime example, where it took more than a week to get vital aid distribution and medical intervention organised and underway, but it is far from the only one.

The same has been true to a greater or lesser extent of every major catastrophe that I can remember.

From the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia to the earthquake in Kashmir and the south-east Asian tsunami, human suffering and the final death-toll were increased, often dramatically, by failure to intercede early enough and in a properly organised fashion.

It is essential that we address this. A multi-national rapid-response body must be formed that is capable of dispatching expert assistance immediately to the scene of a humanitarian crisis.

Such a body - comprised, for example, of doctors, nurses, logicians, engineers and search-and-rescue experts - would be trained specifically in emergency response and be ready at all times to travel swiftly to any part of the world.

It would, in essence, act as a world fire-bridge, equipped to deal with any emergency, and augmented by military support where necessary.

It seems ludicrous that we can despatch, under the auspices of the United Nations, multi-national peace-keepers and peace enforcers to any part of the world - at the drop of a hat, seemingly - but cannot provide anything like that same organised emergency response to innocent victims of a catastrophe. It is disgraceful that no serious consideration has ever been given to the formation of a body for that purpose.

The principle that applies to a UN peacekeeping force, whereby an agreed number of military personnel are seconded to the UN by individual nations for speedy despatch to wherever needed, could easily be adopted to create a world 'fire-bridge' such as I have outlined.

As things stand at the moment, we are far too reliant on voluntary intervention by individual governments, NGOs and missionary groups.

All of these have, of course, a vital role to play in emergency response - but on their own will always fall well short of what is required.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies should form part of a 'second wave' that follows quickly in the wake of initial intervention by a dedicated body.

In Haiti, it was not agencies on the ground that were lacking, but organisation, planning and overall centralised control.

It was a distinct lack of cohesion that led to the disgraceful situation that I alluded to above, where the people of Port-au-Prince were left to fend for themselves for over a week, until the international relief effort finally began to function as it should.

The Haiti debacle, and those that have preceded it, will be repeated time and again, wherever there is a humanitarian crisis, until the international community finally decides to prepare properly for these re-occurring human catastrophes.

Failure to form a multi-national rapid response body guarantees that there will continue to be unnecessary suffering, and lives lost that could otherwise have been saved.

John O’Shea is the chief executive officer of GOAL

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