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Reforming Humanitarian Relief
Alex Steffen, 30 Dec 04

Speaking before this week's disaster, Hilary Benn, UK Secretary of State for International Development, looks at the state of the international humanitarian relief system, and finds all is not well, and major reforms are needed

"I would like to begin by paying tribute to the extraordinary efforts of humanitarian staff; those who work tirelessly for the Red Cross Movement, NGOs and UN agencies around the world, in increasingly harsh and dangerous conditions in a noble endeavour. ...

"[T]he international system is not working well. Rightly, we look to the UN to lead the international response. But without reform, the UN is at risk of losing credibility. And without reform, we will let down the thousands of brave humanitarian workers who work in the most difficult circumstances and the millions who depend on them to survive.

"Humanitarian funding is insufficient to meet all the needs there are. The response in each crisis is the product of lots of separate funding decisions by donors. These decisions are reasonable in themselves, but they don’t add up to a sensible whole. Some crises receive a lot of funding while others are severely under-funded. ...

"Not enough is spent on prevention. Disasters have a huge impact on development, and this challenge will increase as the impact of climate change becomes more widely felt. The World Bank estimate that losses from disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion if $40 billion had been invested in mitigation and preparedness. They also estimate  that every pound spent on risk reduction can save £7 in relief and repair costs. An earthquake of the same magnitude that killed tens of thousands in Gujarat or Bam only loosened a few tiles in San Francisco. No wonder Jim Wolfensohn has said ‘’Reducing disaster vulnerability may very well be the most critical challenge facing development in the new millennium’’.

"I have six specific proposals for change.

"First, I believe that, to improve leadership at the country level, in particularly serious crises, the UN Secretary General should provide UN humanitarian coordinators with emergency powers to direct other UN agencies. I believe the UN Secretary General should decide which crises are sufficiently severe to warrant this action, on the basis of advice from Jan Egeland. For this to work, the best UN humanitarian coordinators must be deployed in the most urgent situations. I urge the UN to enhance its efforts to strengthen the quality, selection and training of humanitarian coordinators.
Second, I believe that UN humanitarian coordinators, with the support of a better- resourced OCHA, should take lead responsibility for sharper needs assessment, planning and allocation of resources. The humanitarian coordinator should produce a Common Humanitarian Action Plan which costs the achievement of targets and standards. I believe donors should put their money through the Coordinator. He or she should then pass the funds on to other UN agencies for the programmes within the Common Humanitarian Action Plan that he or she judges most critical.
Third, to inform Jan Egeland’s review of sector capacity, I believe we need to set benchmarks for the scale and speed of response we require the humanitarian system to provide. Jan’s review should set standards against which we can hold agencies to account, for example, that agencies will monitor threats to the survival of a vulnerable population once a week; will stabilise threats to survival within two months of a crisis developing through fulfilling basic needs; and will achieve access to basic needs by 80% of target populations within three weeks of the start of a crisis.
Fourth, I propose that we establish a substantial new humanitarian fund, under the control of the UN Secretary General, and administered by Jan Egeland, into which donors pay and from which humanitarian coordinators can draw funds early on, when a crisis threatens or occurs. I propose a new fund of $1 billion a year. In order to provide sufficient incentive for Governments to contribute, the UN would have to attribute donor contributions pro rata and give credit for them in the media. To set the ball rolling, I am prepared to contribute £100 million from DFID. More flexible finance will need to be accompanied by a credible proposal for performance measurement and monitoring. I invite OCHA to work with donors to put together such a proposal.
Fifth, I propose that to balance unequal allocation of resources by donors (think back to my examples: Chechnya and Mozambique), ECHO, the world’s second largest humanitarian donor – and in my view one of the most effective parts of the EU development architecture - should take on a stronger role as a financier of last resort, focusing more of its funds on forgotten crises. ECHO should assess which crises are most poorly-served by other donors and use this as a criterion in determining its own resource allocation.
Finally, given the evidence in support of increased investment in disaster risk reduction, I propose to increase the funding provided by DFID to international efforts to reduce disaster risk and to allocate 10% of the funding provided by DFID in response to each natural disaster to prepare for and mitigate the impact of future disasters, where this can be done effectively. Donors should build disaster reduction into their development programming. The World Bank and regional development banks should consider how disaster risk can be incorporated into Poverty Reduction Strategies. And the UN should look carefully at whether its current institutional set-up is adequate for the scale of the challenge.

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