Natural disasters are a frequent occurrence in Southeast Asia, killing an estimated 350,000 people in the last decade and causing tens of billions dollars worth of damage. With such high loss of life and extensive economic damage, increasing the resilience of its ten member states is a key priority for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). To that end, on 24 December 2010, the anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) came into force.
The AADMER is a legally binding agreement. As a regional framework that has been ratified by all member states, it provides mechanisms to reduce loss of life and assets resulting from disasters in Southeast Asia. It also aims to facilitate joint responses to disasters through concerted national efforts and intensified regional and international cooperation. The Ministers or Secretaries of the government bodies in charge of disaster management and risk reduction comprise the Conference of Parties (COP), which is responsible for reviewing and evaluating the overall implementation of the agreement. The ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM), made up of the respective national disaster management offices of each ASEAN member state, executes the agreement.
The AADMER has paved the way for the establishment of the ASEAN Co-ordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, more commonly referred to as the AHA Centre. Based in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, it is to be launched in July 2011 as the operational engine of the AADMER. It is expected to facilitate cooperation and coordination amongst ASEAN nations, and with relevant UN and international organisations. The ACDM will be its governing board.
The ASEAN Secretariat, and specifically its Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division, supports the COP and ACDM. Part of its function is to ensure coordination with other relevant international bodies. In addition, the ASEAN Secretariat administers the ASEAN Disaster Management and Emergency Relief Fund, and monitors and evaluates the AADMERs Work Programme.
The AADMER Work Programme aims to improve ASEANs capacity for effective and efficient regional early warning and monitoring, preparedness, emergency response and disaster risk reduction by putting in place supportive policies, systems, plans, procedures, mechanisms and institutional and legal frameworks, at both regional and national levels. Alongside this, the Work Programme also aims to enhance the technical and institutional capacities of ASEAN members. To improve the coordination of humanitarian assistance and emergency response the ACDM intends to establish and institutionalise common operational procedures and mechanisms.
The Work Programme also includes projects meant to assist member states and promote regional collaboration in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into national development policies. This extends to providing support for risk reduction measures that link with climate change adaptation. In recognition that many other actors have been working on the same concerns, the AADMER Work Programme also includes the fostering of partnerships and collaborative initiatives on disaster preparedness and response, disaster risk reduction and recovery. Finally, the Work Programme aims to support community-based approaches in disaster management and risk reduction, thereby instilling a culture of safety at the grassroots level.
A people-centred approach
According to the ASEAN Charter, all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building. Consequently, AADMER includes amongst its principles the involvement of all stakeholders, including local communities, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises, utilising, among others, community-based disaster preparedness and early response approaches.
To translate these principles of civil society engagement into practice, a group of international NGOs came together to form the ASEAN Partnership Group (APG) to support the ASEAN Secretariat on two issues: reducing infant mortality and strengthening ASEANs humanitarian response and disaster risk reduction strategies. Chaired by Oxfam and governed by a Regional Governance Board composed of its membership, the APG began by seconding to the ASEAN Secretariat two technical advisors. These advisors and their support team work with the ACDM and the ASEAN Secretariat at the regional level and with national disaster management organisations and civil society stakeholders at the country level. Consultations have led to the AADMER Work Programme strategies on partnership, resource mobilisation, training and knowledge management.
Bringing a civil society partnership of NGOs into a functional working relationship with the ASEAN Secretariat was a challenge. Operational differences and governance systems had to be understood by both parties, and agreements reach on how coordination and cooperation would work. This was especially true for the two Oxfam advisors seconded to the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division of the ASEAN Secretariat.
It was also important to offer something of value from the APG memberships diverse development and disaster risk reduction experience, to establish its credibility and expertise with the ACDM and the ASEAN Secretariat. By working with the ASEAN Secretariats Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division and with member states, the APG is increasing appreciation for the role that civil society could play in the implementation of the AADMER.
Implementing the APGs programme at the country level in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam brought its own set of challenges. Each country context is unique, and progress on legal frameworks for disaster risk reduction and disaster management and the institutionalisation of risk reduction varies between countries. Although the APG had a common set of activities to achieve the same overall outcomes, implementation was customised to fit each country situation.
Results so far
The APG has succeeded in raising awareness of the AADMER amongst various stakeholders, including civil society organisations (CSOs) and national government agencies in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam. At the policy level, the APG has helped to ensure that the language of the AADMER Work Programme reflects inclusive approaches and downward accountability. APG members and partners work with civil society actors at the country and community levels, and the APG aims to enable them to use the provisions and flagship projects of the AADMER Work Programme in furthering their participation in disaster risk reduction. The APG has drawn up a long-term strategy that aims to further raise civil society awareness of the AADMER, in particular its commitment to involve all stakeholders including local communities, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises, utilising, among others, community-based disaster preparedness and early response approaches. Enhancing understanding of the links between the AADMER and national policies and programmes is part of this awareness-raising effort.
The APG also sees value in its role as a catalyst for dialogue between disaster management and risk reduction authorities and civil society, and will try to facilitate agreements on specific partnership projects at various levels. Finally, the APG plans to help further increase civil societys capacity to engage in the implementation of AADMER flagship projects, including monitoring and evaluation.
A training needs assessment project has surveyed the capacity needs of government and CSO representatives to inform the design of the AADMER capacity development programme. A knowledge management project aims to establish a resource centre and online knowledge and information portal for disaster management and emergency response in Southeast Asia, as well as building mechanisms that ensure the active use and application of knowledge and information down to the community level.
The APG, working alongside the Geneva based Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), was also involved in developing ASEANs Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ERAT) methodology and tools. ERAT is intended to assist decision-makers in directing immediate assistance in response to disasters. The methodology highlights the importance of coordinating with local CSOs, because of their deep roots in communities and because they provide immediate assistance to those affected by a disaster, often ahead of international actors.
A shifting landscape for NGOs?
The partnership strategy has been taken further by the ASEAN Secretariat itself, which has proposed to the ACDM that a formal partnership agreement be drawn up with CSOs. The idea constitutes a significant step forward for ASEAN, and has triggered vigorous discussion amongst the ACDM members. The proposal should also be discussed amongst CSOs with equal vigour and reflection.
Southeast Asias governments are intent on improving their disaster risk reduction capabilities and asserting their mandate and authority in coordinating international humanitarian responses. The actual and potential improvements that the AADMER might trigger and sustain are undoubtedly welcome. After all, the formal mandate and duty to uphold and ensure peoples right to life and safety belongs to governments. These changes will alter the operational landscape for many civil society organisations, including the international NGOs that have tended to dominate emergency responses. Given ASEANs ambition and the determination of its member states to set up their own disaster management mechanisms and ensure that they have the capabilities to sustain them, what role is there for civil society? In a changing world, what can CSOs offer the people and governments of Southeast Asia? What form would a partnership between ASEAN and NGOs take? Is a formal partnership even an option?
There are no immediate or easy answers to these questions, which is why it is all the more important for civil society to recognise that positive change is happening, and that new roles and relationships are emerging, The APG plans to initiate a series of dialogues among civil society groups to discuss the possibility of a formal partnership with ASEAN, followed by a dialogue with ACDM leaders on multi-stakeholder partnerships. There will be a lot to consider, both for ASEAN and for CSOs. The good news is that the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division of the ASEAN Secretariat has become a champion of the idea of partnership, and the ACDM, though unsurprisingly cautious, is also open to the idea. The relationship between ASEAN and civil society is evolving, and humanitarian action and disaster risk reduction are serving as platforms for the emergence of a new and better relationship.
Lilian Mercado Carreon is seconded from Oxfam to ASEAN as an Advisor on Partnerships and Resource Mobilisation for the AADMER. She wrote this article in a personal capacity.