World Humanitarian Summit: Capturing Asia’s aid lessons

22 July, 2014
Rakhine, Myanmar: The second World Humanitarian Summit regional consultation, held this week in Tokyo, Japan, is a chance to gather lessons from the world’s most disaster-prone region. Credit: OCHA
Rakhine, Myanmar: The second World Humanitarian Summit regional consultation, held this week in Tokyo, Japan, is a chance to gather lessons from the world’s most disaster-prone region. Credit: OCHA

Governments, academics, humanitarians, military leaders, and activists from across Asia-Pacific will gather in Tokyo, Japan, this week to draw out lessons from decades of humanitarian response in the region as part of the lead-up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.

“What I am expecting of this summit are game-changing recommendations - not the usual ones,” said Oliver Lacey-Hall, Head of OCHA’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “I want the humanitarian actors to really listen to those who are not used to articulating their needs - affected people, academics, the private sector, local governments - people who don’t usually have a voice.”

Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world. From 1975 to 2011, Asia had the world’s highest number of fatalities from natural disasters - 1.5 million. It is estimated that that more than 130 million people in the region are affected by sub-national conflicts.

Increasing spending and increasing needs

The Tokyo meeting is the second of eight regional consultations that will be held in the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey in 2016. The first was held in June in Cote d’Ivoire.

The World Humanitarian Summit, and the meetings leading up to it, take place amid both increasing spending and increasing need for humanitarian responses around the world.

“We are struggling to find an answer to what exactly constitutes effective humanitarian action,” said Lacey-Hall. “Governments have very different views of an effective humanitarian response. Old mechanisms and the days when humanitarian assistance was simply logistical - such as planes being flown to deliver food and supplies - are close to being over.”

Local experiences will be crucial

Participants in the Tokyo session are eager to share local experiences to inform global response practices.

Victoria Lanting, is a board member of the Philippines Red Cross who has been heavily involved in the ongoing response to November 2013’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan, explained: “The Philippines is routinely called the most disaster-risky country in the world. This means Filipinos have experience of response in all forms.”

But, Lanting argued, “disasters of Haiyan magnitude should not be a way of life - fast, effective and transparent humanitarian response should be. Equipping the citizenry with skills… is more relevant now than ever.”

The Aceh experience

It is not only recent disasters like Haiyan that will shape the discussions in Tokyo. Rina Meutia, a disaster management expert, will coordinate a session on conflict needs during the consultation. She is eager to bring her experiences from the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh to bear on the global humanitarian system.

“Aceh was one of the largest humanitarian operations at the time when everyone started arriving after the tsunami,” Meutia said. More than 167,000 Acehnese were killed by the succession of tsunami waves and the massive earthquake that triggered them. Homes, buildings and roads were literally washed away.

More than US$7 billion in donations and government funds poured into the province, which had experienced three decades of civil war.

“When humanitarians arrived to provide relief, many of them had no idea about the ongoing conflict,” said Meutia. “When they learned later how complicated it was, they were surprised to know that the people they were helping recover from a natural disaster had been affected by conflict for so long, and neglected by humanitarians during that time.”

“Sometimes internationals arriving with a particular mandate to give so-called help can actually just confuse people, and even do more harm than good,” she argued. “It’s controversial and messy to even suggest that humanitarian responses should engage with political realities on the ground, but it needs to be part of this global discussion if we want future responses to be more effective.”

Improving assistance for people affected by conflict

The need to improve assistance given to people affected by conflicts is one of the four broad themes being tackled during the World Humanitarian Summit. As many as 33.3 million people were displaced by conflicts around the world, according to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva at the beginning of this year. This was the highest figure ever recorded.

“I am concerned about the question of humanitarian action in conflict settings. We need to sit down and have an honest conversation [about] whether an organization getting the majority of its funds from one single source can still be neutral,” said OCHA’s Lacey-Hall.

“We need to look at our core principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence - to see if we manage to uphold them in light of fundraising demands,” he said.

A version of this article was published on IRIN on 22 July 2014.

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