Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A Message of Hope

The Diplomad has lots of details on the relief effort in Aceh, from the arrival of Margareta Wahlstrom, the "United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Secretary-General's Special Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance in Tsunami-afected countries" -- yes that's her title -- to a Dutch diplomatic report that reads like it was written by the Belmont Club. The Diplomad was so funny as to strain credulity, especially its reproduction of the request to attend Ms. Wahlstrom -- issued "by the same UN official who suggested a couple of days back that the Australian and US air traffic controllers in Aceh should don UN blue".

"Ms. Wahlstrom's main task will be provide leadership and support to the international relief effort. She will undertake high-level consultations with the concerned governments in order to facilitate the delivery of international assistance."

That leadership was to be provided over two whole days from January 4-5. However my dropped jaw was reaffixed to the upper dentures by collateral confirmation from this article on the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies site. Wahlstrom's remarks have nearly convinced me that the folks at Diplomad are not exaggerating.

“You are an important actor and an important partner for the United Nations, especially the National Societies,” Margareta Wahlstrom said during a visit to the Sri Lanka Red Cross and the International Federation office in Colombo. “What people do on the ground is very important. They are the people who respond first and it is only then that we come. So what people do out there at community level is very important,” the UN Secretary General's envoy added.

Wahlstrom, who was on a two day visit to the island, also said it was time for the world to be thoughtful and rebuild after the destruction caused by the tsunami. “We see a pattern in the problems we are facing now: the challenges, overall conditions and the logistics. Infrastructure is destroyed. The President is spearheading the operations with the support at local levels, government agencies, United Nations and other agencies. People are still under shock and we also must be careful that people are not overwhelmed by the system. We must be thoughtful,” she added.

She was, of course, probably referring to the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. People can rest easy now that the very flower of the international civil service is on the spot.

It has been argued that comparisons between United Nations disaster relief actions and those of sovereign nations are odious. A British Department for International Development report dated December 31, 2004 listed out the accomplishments of the United Nations and other agencies to that date. What is striking is how poorly the UN seems to perform even in comparison with the International Red Cross and private relief organizations like Save the Children Foundation (SCF) and Christian AID.

For example, by December 31, the Red Cross had already implemented a fairly long list of concrete actions across the entire region. Medical teams with specific compositions, destinations and missions had already been dispatched. Sample Red Cross activities were:

  • "The Federation is purchasing body bags, burial cloths and masks. They also sent a medical team of five doctors and nurses to Aceh 29 December. The Federation and the Indonesian Red Cross are arranging helicopters to transport assessment teams and medical personnel to the affected areas."
  • FACT team (Field Assessment Coordination Team) including health, telecoms, relief/logistics, water/sanitation, reporting and information specialists arrived in Jakarta 29 December. They are tasked to determine the location of the (Emergency Response Unit) ERU in Meulaboh. Danish logistics ERU, Belgian telecoms ERU arrived 29 December. Japanese basic health care ERU due 30 December, French Watsan ERU due 31 December. Majority of ERU equipment to be sent to Medan, then sent by helicopter to Meulaboh. New Emergency Health Kits (NEHK) are being procured.
  • Thai Red Cross mobilised since 26 December, providing medical care, food, water and clothing to the homeless, injured and affected. The national delegation has also sent 29 doctors, 45 specialist nurses and mobile medical teams (surgeons, plastic surgeons, orthopaedics, anaesthetists and forensic) to supplement local medical teams, the government, the military, medical and relief agencies. The Federation has allocated CHF 100,000 to the Thai Red Cross.

In contrast, most of the overall UN activities were maddeningly vague and mostly in the future tense. (These excerpts are taken verbatim from the report)

  • UN appoints Ms. Margareta Wahlstrom, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator as Special Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance to tsunami affected countries.
  • WHO estimates up to 5 million people displaced by tsunamis.
  • OCHA prepared to serve as a channel for unearmarked cash contributions for immediate relief assistance.
  • FAO undertaking damage assessment missions in each of the affected countries.
  • UNICEF warns that lack of access to potable water may result in outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea.
  • UN preparing to launch regional Flash Appeal - due 6 or 7 January 2005.

The reaction of in-country UN teams was hardly better. In Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the earthquake and the tsunami, the specific activities of the UN at year end stood thus.

  • UN country team estimates USD 40.1 million for UN agency projects.
  • UNDAC team in Aceh province undertaking assessments. This team will be reinforced by a further 5 members in due course as well as members of UNJLC.
  • 29-31 December - OCHA arranging a joint rapid assessment mission to Banda Aceh (including NGOs and UN agencies).
  • UN agencies in Indonesia in a position to provide immediate assistance worth $1 million.
  • OCHA released $50,000 and UNDP $100,000 - emergency grants.
  • UNDP to deploy recovery expert. o WFP assigned $500,000 for food procurement and distribution. They are also preparing an emergency operation for $12 million. WFP to establish a presence in Banda Aceh.
  • WHO/UNICEF to provide 10 health kits (100,000 people for 3 months). Due 30 December. WHO to provide technical assistance.
  • UNICEF to send tarpaulins and family sets for 8,000 households, plus emergency health kits to supply 200,000 people for 2 weeks.

Forgetting for a moment any ideological views toward the United Nations the reader may have, what is striking is how slow off the mark the UN was, even in comparison to smaller nongovernment organizations. Consider the difference in the OODA loop of the UN and the US military, which is widely parodied in movies as being hidebound and inflexible. The Abraham Lincoln arrived in Hong Kong on December 22, 2004 for replenishment. The tsunami devastated the Bay of Bengal region on the morning of December 26; on December 28 the Lincoln received orders to leave Hong Kong for the disaster area. It prepared to sail, with all that implies for a major formation yet by January 1st, the Lincoln was off the coast of Sumatra. Leaving aside the resource differences that allowed the Navy to move major assets vast distances in 72 hours, it had taken less than 48 hours for the US to come up with an implementable plan, obtain approval from national command authority and execute, in essence, no slower than the Red Cross, only bigger. In contrast, the UN is much bigger than the Red Cross, but its OODA cycle seemed much slower.