The Challenge of Disaster Response: Lessons on World Humanitarian Day

More than ever before, our world seems engulfed in humanitarian crises, with overwhelming suffering from conflict, hurricanes and earthquakes, and enormous dangers faced by those trying to help people in need.

Only twelve days ago, ten dedicated medical aid workers were brutally murdered in Afghanistan. Pakistan now confronts devastating floods of historical proportions. In Kyrgyzstan, violence and intimidation forced some 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks to flee their homes in June. Malnutrition is lurking in Niger, while multi-year relief efforts continue in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Amid these and other disasters, governments and humanitarian organizations around the world today observe World Humanitarian Day, which the UN established to pay tribute to aid efforts for victims of conflict and natural disasters, and to honor the memory of more than 700 humanitarian relief workers worldwide who lost their lives in service during the past decade. August 19 also marks the tragic anniversary of the 2003 terrorist bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people - including Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of the UN's most experienced and effective humanitarian leaders.

What conclusions can we draw from this proliferation of humanitarian crises? And how can the United States make best use of some $5 billion spent by our civilian agencies each year to provide relief around the globe?

First, the number of people affected by disasters is on the rise. By the end of last year, some 43 million people were displaced by conflict -- the highest figure in over a decade. Others have been impacted by natural disasters, including millions of Pakistanis displaced this month due to torrential downpours and flooding. Climate change and desertification, urbanization of coastal areas, and weak governance and insecurity in many parts of the world indicate
that displacement will increase.

Second, and in spite of these trends, U.S. humanitarian assistance is a sound investment. Though only about one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget, our aid not only saves lives, but promotes security and well-being where despair and misery threaten. After the initial
death and destruction caused by the January earthquake in Haiti, U.S.-provided food, shelter and medicine was critical in enabling Haiti to avert further large-scale loss of life and has helped to permit the country's leaders and civil society to focus on the recovery process ahead. In Africa, U.S. funds have played an important role in the return home of more than 3.5 million African refugees over the past decade. And in Pakistan, U.S. aid to Afghan refugees has helped to support Pakistani policies of tolerance and to reduce a potential source of destabilization.

Third, we must transform our efforts to prevent disasters -- caused either by war or natural hazards -- before they occur. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, assistance programs to promote reconciliation, the rule of law and economic development help to diminish the prospects for
renewed conflict and humanitarian crises. And in several countries impacted by the 2004 Asian tsunami, stronger building codes, early-warning systems, and official emergency response systems have reduced the possibility that a natural hazard like a hurricane will become a full blown disaster. While we have increased U.S. spending and emphasis on reducing risks, we and others must do more to ensure that the urgency of post-disaster response does not crowd out the vital work of prevention.

Finally, while the United States leads the world in international humanitarian response, we cannot do the job alone. Even in Pakistan, where U.S. aid commitments were over $75 million by the end of last week - making us the largest donor - we will have to press others to come forward if we are to meet the UN's appeal for $460 million and other requirements that will arise. We must also support UN agencies like the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and the World Food Program, as they know their business, integrate the contributions of donors and help to avoid confusion on the ground. About half our relief goes through such agencies, and it is money well spent, but it must be coupled with strong efforts to strengthen their capacities.

Frustration and donor fatigue are understandable responses to the myriad calamities in the headlines. But they are not good options, as they contrast starkly with progress humanitarians have made in alleviating the suffering of tens of millions of people in recent years. There is much more we can do to advance this noble cause, and to offer the prospect of a brighter future for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Eric Schwartz is Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State; Susan Reichle is Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning at the U.S. Agency for International Development.