Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Responders' Cauldron: The Uniqueness of International Disaster Response

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Responders' Cauldron: The Uniqueness of International Disaster Response

Article excerpt

Natural calamities claimed the lives of 249,896 people worldwide in 2004 in 360 reported disasters, compared to 84,570 killed in 1995 in 239 reported disasters, one indication that the frequency and effects of disasters on people is increasing. (1) The year 2005 began with the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami and ended with the South Asia earthquake. These two high-profile disasters resulted in the unusual sight of two former U.S. presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, simultaneously serving as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoys. Meanwhile, new entities such as the corporate sector are becoming engaged in disaster response. In some circles it is trendy to talk about disaster prevention, mitigation and risk reduction as a panacea for dealing with disasters. The fact remains, however, that no amount of reduction or mitigation can tame nature and prevent disasters from happening. Consequently, there will always be a need to assist the victims of disasters by responding quickly and effectively.

Responding to disasters is entirely different from responding to conflict-related complex emergencies. This difference is not well appreciated even within the international humanitarian community, which considers responding to complex emergencies its "normal" work. Although disaster response is inherently chaotic, tried and tested international tools and procedures do exist to assist a disaster-affected government and its people to handle the situation. However, new players, including the corporate sector, and to some extent the public, have entered the field of disaster response. Drawn by increased media exposure to disasters since Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998 (the first disaster response covered live by CNN) these new entities present opportunities, but their very presence in large numbers at a disaster site poses certain challenges. When added to the difficulties inherent in international disaster response, these new actors could lead to coordination becoming less effective in the future unless remedial action is taken quickly. These actions include strengthening international and national disaster response preparedness; ensuring verifiable operational standards of international responders; and restoring a hard-won consensus on international response processes. In addition, the humanitarian community must understand that disaster response is a completely different specialized activity that requires professionals and decisionmakers experienced in this field in order to function effectively Donors must also fund response preparedness between disasters. Finally, if the corporate sector is serious about disaster response, it has to work within established coordination structures and agree to certain ethical and professional guidelines.

It is in this context that this paper discusses the international response to sudden onset natural disasters. It examines the circumstances that create the unique, high pressure cauldron in which responders find themselves at a disaster site. It thereafter goes on to examine the many simultaneous levels and locations of response at a disaster site and to explain the specific features of disasters that make coordination and response inherently difficult. It outlines what instruments the international community uses to respond to major natural disasters to support a disaster-affected country as well as the requirements of on-site coordination in the disaster area. It then discusses several barriers to effective coordination that have recently developed. Finally, this paper recommends actions that need to be taken to strengthen the international disaster response system.

THE DISASTER CAULDRON: AN EMERGENCY ENVIRONMENT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHERS

Most humanitarian responders spend the majority of their careers responding to complex emergencies. Yet humanitarian response in complex emergencies differs significantly from that in natural disasters. …

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