The nature of humanitarian assistance in disaster response almost always includes an international element. In turn this then calls for some sense of international organisation and co-ordination of the response.
An important aspect of the relief environment is that it is unregulated. Usually there is no single authority able to control the action of all actors participating in the relief response. Ideally this role would be taken on by the affected country’s government, but unfortunately, all too frequently the government involved is lacking in experience, funding and knowledge required to manage an emergency effectively and in areas where the emergency is conflict related it is not uncommon for the government structure to be dysfunctional. This has the potential to leave the best role of relief actors unclear.
The UN is the largest international relief organisation, under which many relief and humanitarian NGOs work. The Cluster System, implemented as part of the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review, aims to apply the regulation to their actors that is often missing from the whole picture, in order to coordinate a more effective response. The Cluster System divides any relief response into nine “clusters” each with a lead agency:
· Nutrition (UNICEF)
· Water and Hygiene (UNICEF)
· Health (WHO)
· Coordination and camp management for displaced people (UNHCRM/IOM)
· Emergency shelters (UNHCR/IFRC)
· Protection (UNHCR/OHCHR/UNICEF)
· Logistics (UNJLC/WFP)
· Means of communication (OCHA/UNICEF/WFP)
· Early Recovery (UNDP)
This system aims to fill the gaps found in previous relief responses such as the 2004 Indonesian Earthquake causing the well covered Boxing Day Tsunami. The official investigation of the response suggested the international relief mission did not effectively respond to the needs of the population and was driven more by politics and media. The cluster system aims to ensure that all humanitarian needs of the population are fulfilled by each of the nine clusters. This system has coordination and leadership at an international, national and cluster level aiding a spread of effective aid across the affected population.
The other aim of the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review was to improve the effectiveness of funding by increasing flexibility and timeliness. As NGOs main income is from donations, and the swiftness of their response is dependent on their income, an element of competition develops between organisations, for donations and then in time taken to enter an area in emergency. The supplies required for an effective response may also be limited and so NGOs can become competitive over this also. The 2005 review did effectively alter this for the organisations working under the UN umbrella providing more flexible and timely funding for operations and deployment.
However, despite the improvements made from the 2005 review, the UN system is still pretty far from perfect. MSF have famously denounced the UN system and refused to join it on the basis that they believe the reforms to not have been as effective as they could have seemed. They argue that the increased organisation and coordination may have further lengthened the time taken for relief response to commence, using example of their 2006 response to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The main reason MSF stubbornly maintains their independence is to ensure they do “not jeopardise the strictly humanitarian and impartial nature of [their] organisation”. This statement refers particularly to conflict situations in which MSF feel the UN continues to take a political stance which echoes into its humanitarian response. Previously it is clear to see where this is true, the exclusion of certain groups in Sierra Leone in 1997 when the UN withdrew staff and cut off military assistance to support the political arm of weakening the AFRC/RUF. This political decision led to unnecessarily and arguably deliberate suffering and starvation of the population. The UN Secretary General has repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of integrated missions meaning any UN presence should represent the priorities and contribute to the objective of the UN mission. In April 2006, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced the halving of the food rations of the Darfur area due to lack of finance. This arose because the donor countries to this programme decided to make assistance to populations conditional upon the signing of a peace agreement.
MSF is not the only NGO to be functioning independently in areas of relief work. Many others enter countries in need with no invitation and no need to report to any umbrella organisation or authority. This disorganisation can bring about the gaps and unbalance in relief response as it is hard to monitor in country who is receiving what aid, from whom and where. However, it may also be considered better to let organisations get on with what they do and remain flexible to the changing needs of an area in emergency.
I have a great deal of respect for Medicins Sans Frontieres and the incredible work they do which I consider unrivalled in providing unbiased help to everyone. They are a specialised NGO with health as their direct objective and have chosen to opt out of UN operations because they believe it the best decision to provide the best responses they possibly can. However, I see the benefits of joining an umbrella organisation such as the UN in providing better all-round relief for areas that need it. I think that the UN system, encompassing the cluster system, still has ground to cover in efficiency and response deliverance and in providing the best response for everyone effected but that the NGOs involved in their operations do extraordinary and altruistic work which is better organised and more effective for the work of OCHA, UNDAC, IASC and the UN which governs them all.