Most of the world knows of the tsunamis that struck eleven countries in South and Southeast Asia in late December 2004. A huge outpouring of humanitarian aid was provided by governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), religious groups, corporations, and individuals from numerous nations.
What most of the world does not know is that getting this aid to the people that needed it in a timely fashion was and continues to be incredibly difficult.
It is not as if plans had not been made to respond efficiently to disasters. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1991 agreed upon the general principles of humanitarian aid to be provided by the UN and its member states. These principles were augmented and formalized in Oslo, Norway, in 1994. They call for coordination among international aid agencies, the UN, and military and civil defense teams to distribute aid quickly and effectively.
And yet, when I traveled to Chennai, India, to assist in clearing humanitarian supplies donated by several U.S. churches, I discovered that these guidelines were of little practical use when attempting to negotiate the multiple levels involved in the bureaucratic clearance process. Our shipping containers filled with rice, bottled water, canned food, clothing, and first aid supplies took two weeks to clear customs. At the port were countless shipping containers sent by well-meaning donors from other countries, similarly idled while people went hungry.
One major barrier to providing emergency relief was the limited number of relief workers to process donated clothing, food, household items, and medical supplies. Sorting was necessary because people had donated clothing inappropriate for the climate and food that conflicted with cultural dietary restrictions and had not adequately considered the basic emergency needs of the tsunami victims and emergency workers. The seaports and airports of the region were flooded with aid, without people to handle it.
Quite simply,to provide humanitarian relief resulting from natural or social disasters, we must modernize the outdated and inappropriate protocols for the movement of relief goods and the rescue or relief of the victims themselves.
The need for internationally recognized humanitarian relief policies even became clear in the United States, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf states. Communication problems between governmental policy makers and disaster victims contributed to months of chaos as families sought access to health care, educational services, food, shelter, water, and fuel. Various professional and community relief organizations have attempted to provide voluntary relief to displaced residents only to encounter their own version of bureaucratic red tape.
Humanitarian groups responded to the needs of victims of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina based on emergency announcements by governments and appeals for assistance from global or local communities. Relief supplies were provided by a wide variety of stakeholders. Yet distribution and other logistical problems persisted. To decrease barriers to getting aid to victims, several UN agencies and NGOs have identified the need to show more directly the relationship of relief activities to their actual effects on the victims receiving that assistance. Currently, no uniform policy exists that requires relief organizations to demonstrate impact in order to continue receiving donor support or governmental permission to continue providing humanitarian assistance.
Disaster relief policies and legislation must be reexamined and aligned in order for systems to protect persons facing emergency situations that place them in immediate need of assistance. An international protocol for rapid clearance of relief supplies is critical. The contingency plans in the Oslo guidelines are only a first step. Health services, food, financial assistance, education, and postdisaster development must be a collaborative effort between governmental entities, community organizations, and citizens.
As published in Human Rights, Fall 2006, Vol. 33, No. 4, p. 14