I was at home in London when I heard the news of the tsunami disaster on the morning of 26 December. It quickly became clear that this was a serious emergency, and that the DFID disaster response machinery was going to have a busy Boxing Day. But it was not immediately apparent how challenging the response would prove to be.
The UKs Department for International Development (DFID) normally responds through its financial support to NGOs, the Red Cross Movement and UN agencies. But it also has the capability to undertake direct bilateral response actions when deemed necessary and appropriate. Its Crisis Response Unit provides this capability. Because DFID is a government department, a request for bilateral or international assistance from an affected government is required before we send human or material resources. Once a specific request had been received (from the Sri Lankan government), mobilisation was triggered.
Despite the media glare that attended the tsunami, it was not a question of being the first to send a relief flight, or the first country to get supplies to the affected area. Obviously time is crucial in relieving suffering, and the quicker aid arrives the better. There is also an element of professional pride in sending one of the first relief flights to bring assistance. But the primary motivation is to meet humanitarian need as quickly as possible; if other donors are able to respond quicker, thats to be welcomed.
DFID takes the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) process very seriously (it is currently the chair). GHD, agreed in Stockholm in June 2003, reminds donors that humanitarian action should be guided by the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Specific principles address the allocation of humanitarian funding in proportion to needs and on the basis of needs assessments; the involvement of beneficiaries in design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation; and providing humanitarian assistance in ways that support recovery and long-term development. When there is immense pressure to respond quickly and visibly as was the case with the tsunami there is a risk that the GHD principles will become a secondary concern. Good assessment, prioritisation and coordination can be sidelined.
Applying GHD principles and practices poses a number of challenges in responding to sudden-onset emergencies. Seeking to ensure that the response is based on assessed needs and is effectively coordinated with other actors implementing agencies, donors, affected governments can be difficult in the early hours and days of any response. In the hours after the news of the disaster, I had approved British support for the UNs Disaster Assessment and Coordination team and UK funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to enable it to send disease monitoring and surveillance teams to the tsunami zone. Although it was clear that standard relief materials were immediately needed, it was also important that we supported the needs assessment process. DFID has Country Offices in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, but the expertise for formulating an appropriate UK response to the disaster primarily rested with the Crisis Response team in London. This necessitated sending teams out to the region, and establishing links with the humanitarian organisations working in-country. The Country Offices supported the Crisis Response teams and helped to provide links with the Sri Lankan and Indonesian governments.
As the disaster response developed, DFIDs people in both Sri Lanka and Aceh provided daily reports of the situation, of what humanitarian organisations were planning and undertaking and the intentions of other donors. These reports moulded our response strategy. In parallel, in London we liaised with other donor headquarters, and with humanitarian organisations. Over the first couple of months of the relief phase, I hosted regular meetings with NGOs to explain our response, and to keep ourselves informed of NGOs plans. We also placed daily updates on the DFID website, and kept parliamentarians and diaspora groups informed. As information came in, our response developed to include a range of relief and recovery interventions, such as financial support to the UN, the Red Cross and NGOs, direct bilateral action including through the use of UK military assets, and the provision of human resources in the form of secondments to the UN.
The public response
This response was significantly different to previous ones because of the extraordinary generosity of the British public to the appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the umbrella organisation for 13 leading UK aid agencies. We were unsure if the DEC NGOs would come to us for funding given the level of public money (some £350m) donated to the DECs tsunami appeal. However, having decided our response strategy, we put out a call for NGOs to submit concept notes for interventions that we might support. As the DEC agencies were going to be well-funded from the public appeal, we offered to meet the costs of their flights in order that the money raised by the public could be spent on material assistance rather than on getting it to the affected areas. This arrangement seemed to work well, and has been repeated following the earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005.
DFIDs good relations with the DEC meant that the public response did not present an operational problem. It did however become a representational issue, with the media seeing the public response as in competition with what the UK government was doing. In particular, as the DEC appeal total rose, the media asked whether the government was going to match it. Managing public expectations and media reporting became onerous daily tasks, in addition to managing DFIDs contribution to the immediate response. On one occasion, I spent a full day researching the background to a story in a newspaper that a charitys relief deliveries were being blocked by bureaucracy in DFID and by disagreement between DFID and the Ministry of Defence about the cost of using a military flight to transport these goods. There was no truth in the reports linking DFID or the MOD with the story, but valuable time was lost checking into and contesting the story, and having to answer subsequent public and parliamentary correspondence on the matter. The newspaper concerned never corrected the inaccuracy in its story.
The media also focused attention on governments failing to meet their pledges. In fact, the UK has a very good record in fulfilling the pledges it makes, but this did not stop all manner of questions coming our way. What did we pledge for the Bam earthquake in 2003, and how much was spent? (That was an easy one.) Others asked for full details of pledges to disasters for the past 20 years and figures on what was actually spent. If pledges were not met in full, why was this? For most responses, the UK funds proposals or appeals from humanitarian organisations by making a contribution to a programme of action. This is not strictly speaking in the nature of a pledge. Governments make pledges in response to a UN Appeal, when a pledging conference is arranged at which donors announce the contribution they intend to make in support of the Appeal. In the tsunami response, the UK pledged a specific sum (£40m) in response to the UN Flash Appeal, as part of the overall sum DFID had allocated for the relief phase.
Public and media concern have a place in the response. Both are part of being accountable to the public and parliament, and constitute opportunities for us to inform people about why specific actions are being taken, and others are not. There are important lessons from the response, but overall I believe that the relief phase was generally effective. Some have highlighted ineffective coordination among organisations providing assistance. The fact that the scale of the public response freed agencies from reliance on donor government support no doubt played a role in this, as organisations found themselves with sufficient funds to act as donors themselves. It also meant that organisations that usually play a supporting role were able to undertake direct action in-country. DFID traditionally supports organisations with an established track record, particularly those that are already in-country before the disaster strikes, and that will still be there long after others have delivered their relief and left. In the UK, including through the DEC, we are fortunate that the key responders fit this description, and that they coordinate and share information among themselves. We also need to look at how donors coordinate among themselves, and at how military assets are deployed.
Whilst the GHD initiative is progressing in some emergencies in Africa (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)), it has yet to reach all parts of natural disaster response. From the donor perspective, we need to look more critically at the way we respond to natural disasters, especially those, like the tsunami, where there is huge public and media interest. It is at times like these that pressure to react bilaterally, and to be seen to be providing a British response, as opposed to being part of a coordinated international response, is greatest, and where there is a greater risk of donors acting inappropriately, either responding without assessing and prioritising needs, or in uncoordinated and disproportionate ways.
Peter Troy is Humanitarian Programmes Manager at DFID. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.