Coping with Disaster: A Challenge for International Institutions

By Kent, Randolph | Harvard International Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Coping with Disaster: A Challenge for International Institutions


Kent, Randolph, Harvard International Review


Uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change will increasingly characterize humanitarian threats in the foreseeable future. These threats may range from the prospect of the 320-meter asteroid 99942 Apophis crashing into the Pacific rim in 2035 to Himalayan snow meltdown that would leave an estimated 300 million South Asians without water. Regardless of the particular event, the effects of such potential catastrophes are essential but almost too cataclysmic to contemplate.

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Those responsible for preventing and responding to large-scale crises face a monumental challenge. They have to contemplate possible futures and drive toward solutions. And yet responses to such recent disasters as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, avian influenza, the Darfur conflict, and the 2005 Niger food crisis offer little assurance that organizations' anticipatory and adaptive capacities are adequate to meet the challenge.

Across the wide spectrum of governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations, few have shown sustained interest in predicting catastrophic trends and their consequences. Even fewer have attempted to incorporate these trends into organizational strategies and operational activities. Far fewer still have demonstrated any inclination to adjust organizational behavior to become more agile, innovative, and flexible.

These are challenges for all, especially for the UN institutions that will be directly and indirectly involved in large-scale catastrophes in the future. These challenges will test how the United Nations determines its priorities and how far it is willing to abandon self-serving but outmoded assumptions. At the same time, they also will be a test for member states, who must ultimately commit to a UN role that individual states cannot perform alone.

The Rise of UN Humanitarianism

In November 1970, 250,000 Bengalis lost their lives in a matter of six hours as a cyclone from the Bay of Bengal swept across the flat coastline of what was then East Pakistan. UN Secretary-General U Thant was determined to respond to this catastrophe. He was warned off, however, by the representative of the Soviet Union, who stated categorically that "disaster relief" was not the United Nations' responsibility. Indeed, until the mid-1980s, humanitarian issues--disaster and emergency prevention, preparedness, and response--were at most peripheral concerns for the United Nations and at the least an unwelcome interference with the core functions of "peace and security." Over the last 20 years, however, humanitarianism has moved from the periphery to the center of UN concerns due to four intersecting factors.

First, media technology brought the plight of the increasingly disaster-prone developing world into the living rooms of richer nations, triggering the consciences of many political constituencies. The 1984 drought affecting 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa underscored the need for the United Nations to become more attuned to the political and public relations implications of mobilized public conscience.

Second, there were more humanitarian crises. The impact of poverty, the erosion of infrastructure, and the inability of many countries to maintain minimal social safety nets meant that an ever-widening swath of human population was vulnerable to disasters and emergencies. Whether the so-called "disaster agents" were earthquakes, floods, volcanic explosions, or mudslides, their effects clearly demonstrated that vulnerability was inversely related to wealth. Humanitarian intervention has become more necessary.

Third, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, superpowers paid less attention to former client states. This also contributed to the growing centrality of humanitarian affairs within the United Nations. The support that had sustained many governments declined in the late 1980s. "Development aid"--whether military assistance, institution building, or agricultural and rural development--was on the decline.

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