Keep the U.S. Response to Global Humanitarian Disasters Impartial

The capacity to respond to the urgent needs of vulnerable people in emergencies around the world is a central pillar of the U.S. government's foreign assistance portfolio. It should exemplify the impartial outpouring of humanitarian response in the wake of unthinkable tragedy. As the State Department's just-released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) acknowledges, it is an area in which the U.S. holds a comparative advantage. This is a good thing since, as we've seen over the last year, the U.S. is frequently asked to play a lead role in the international response to humanitarian crises.

Though revision of the U.S.'s approach to humanitarian assistance is not central to the QDDR, it gets some attention. The QDDR proposes a distinction between natural disaster response, in which the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will lead, and response to protracted, conflict-driven emergencies, in which the Department of State will lead. In the latter instance, it clarifies that "USAID will also drive the humanitarian response under State's overall lead when such disasters occur in acute political and security situations."

Two aspects of this approach are problematic. First, the rationale for State leadership in response to conflict-driven emergencies is understandable, given the importance of political and diplomatic engagement to resolve conflicts. However, the risk is that the humanitarian response itself will be politicized, with diplomatic and counter-terror imperatives trumping humanitarian principles, which mandate that impartial response to vulnerability is the most important criterion for determining the nature and scope of the response. Secondly, the distinction between natural and conflict-induced emergencies is not as clear as the QDDR implies. The very existence and scale of natural disasters often reflect social divisions, political oppression, and conflict. Is the flooding in Pakistan a natural disaster or another aspect of the complex political challenges that the country is facing? Cyclone Nargis in Burma was a natural disaster, but the political context of the country dictated the specific challenges of the response. Will USAID or State lead in these and similar situations?

The QDDR does not explicitly address or resolve the issue of which government entity will lead in responding to the needs of people displaced within their own countries due to conflict or political emergencies. At present USAID leads in responding to the needs of conflict-affected internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are often among the most vulnerable in crisis situations, while the State Department's refugee bureau (PRM) has the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of refugees, individuals who are residing outside the borders of their country of origin due to persecution and conflict. The QDDR rightly acknowledges that the positive engagement between the State Department and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has enhanced UNHCR's ability to meet the needs of vulnerable people worldwide. With UNHCR increasingly responding to the needs of IDPs, however, in effect USAID and State are sharing responsibility for the U.S. government response to internal displacement. The logical implication of the QDDR is that State will lead in responding to the needs of conflict-affected internal displaced people, but its failure to address this issue specifically is a surprising gap.

USAID's principal disaster response entity, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has the legislative authority to provide humanitarian assistance based on need. Particularly in complex crises, it is imperative that the activity that flows from the QDDR reinforces the role of USAID in meeting the needs of vulnerable people according to core principles of the humanitarian imperative (acknowledging the right of every human being affected by a natural or manmade disaster to receive humanitarian assistance), independence (ensuring humanitarian staff are not used by governments or other groups for non-humanitarian purposes), and impartiality (ensuring that assistance is provided according to need and without regard to race, religion, nationality or political affiliation).

The QDDR acknowledges that offices under the authority of USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) - including OFDA among others - have the critical ability to mobilize resources to mount fast and effective humanitarian relief. We appreciate the commitment to doubling OFDA's staff (and hope that this will be matched by an increase of much-needed resources). These represent appropriate acknowledgements of the unique capacities that USAID's DCHA brings to the table. Any attempt to unite the breadth of U.S. efforts under a whole of government response, makes it imperative to ensure that the unique capacities of each government entity are preserved. Coordination should not be confused with a complete unity of purpose. As the QDDR acknowledges, in complex, manmade conflicts and political crises, the State Department has the comparative advantage and diplomatic expertise to support negotiations to resolve crises and negotiate access for humanitarians to vulnerable populations. Similarly, in responses to natural disasters, the diplomatic weight of the U.S. will need to be called upon to resolve a host of issues - for example, expediting host country customs clearance of relief supplies. The military may also play an important role in supporting disaster response in certain contexts, but always under civilian leadership and based on needs clearly articulated by disaster response professionals - not supply-driven.

The U.S. is not the sole responder in an era of increasing humanitarian crises. The Obama administration has expanded U.S. multilateralism. The QDDR's commitments to ongoing engagement with the UN cluster system and its new Emergency Relief Coordinator and the creation of a Humanitarian Policy Working Group aimed at coordinating U.S. efforts to strengthen the international humanitarian system are welcome ones - and things on which we hope to hear more.

The QDDR contains many positive elements. The InterAction community is hopeful that it will lead to greater collaboration between USAID and the Department of State to enable the U.S. to respond effectively to humanitarian emergencies and the needs of vulnerable people.