International disaster relief groups mount efforts to navigate legal minefields

An aid worker for the American Red Cross hands humanitarian supplies to a victim of earthquake in Haiti. Photo by: Talia Frenkel / American Red Cross

Indonesia’s twin disasters – last week’s tsunami and subsequent volcanic eruptions – are providing an unexpected test for a new disaster relief coordination blueprint the country adopted only last month. While it is too soon to assess the impact of the new laws, local relief officials say some assistance has at least managed to reach all the affected areas.

During these times of tsunami, hurricane, fire and flood, Indonesia has become the first country to make legislative changes based on a new international set of guidelines designed to plug regulatory black holes that impede relief efforts. Millions of lives hang in the balance as the world has witnessed, be it in Indonesia, Pakistan, Haiti or New Orleans.

All too often, much-needed food, supplies and personnel have become stuck in airports and ports due to difficulties with visas, custom clearance and lack of overall coordination while poorly trained personnel and inappropriate aid gets through.

Last month fifty disaster relief specialists from the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific (including Indonesia) met in Jordan to discuss how to address the problem through the implementation of a voluntary legal framework established in 2007 known as the International Disaster Response Laws.

The IDRL guidelines were developed and adopted by all 186 members of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies as well as all parties to the Geneva Conventions. Indonesia was the first to make legislative changes based on IDRL, followed by Panama, New Zealand and Norway.

“In the 1970s there were about 80 [natural disasters] a year while last year there were more than 300,” said David Fisher of the Red Cross’s legal department in Geneva. “We’ve seen over time that disasters are getting worse as a result of climate change.”

While acceptance of the guidelines is ultimately a political decision by the governments concerned, they are also designed for humanitarian agencies to help them create their own codes of conduct. During Oct. 18-22 meetings in Brussels, for instance, the Red Cross briefed members of the EU’s humanitarian arm ECHO, short for the European Commission – Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, on the IDRL guidelines.

“I guess the spark [for the guidelines] was an article in our World Disaster Report of 2009,” said Fisher. “It pointed out that there’s a law regarding armed conflict disasters but despite so much money going to relief for natural disasters, it is mostly unregulated and we thought someone should look into this. Any country, business or NGO faces these problems trying to bring goods or personnel into a foreign country. The difference is, during a disaster you need to react fast because thousands, millions of lives are at stake.”

‘A good start’

James Lee Witt, the CEO of Witt Associates, a crisis management firm in Washington, has had wide experience in disaster relief situations from the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina and Haiti’s earthquake. Witt, who is a former director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, believes the IDRL guidelines are “a good start.” But he said the key to their effectiveness is persuading the most vulnerable countries to have them in place before disaster strikes.

Norway and and New Zealand have already changed their laws to create a specific status for foreign relief workers to avoid having to waive visa requirements on an ad-hoc basis during an emergency.

That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, a former ambassador in Asia who asked to remain anonymous told Devex.

“As ambassador, I made a unilateral decision to waive visa requirements in order to deal with the flood of NGOs seeking visas,” he said.

The former ambassador said he welcomed the IDRL guidelines, but he noted that it is equally important to persuade the growing number of NGOs that overwhelm a country immediately after a disaster to also accept them.

He also noted that language was a big problem “especially with foreign medical teams.”

“Not enough use is made of local doctors,” he said. “There should be at least one on each team.”

The fact that the IDRL guidelines address both governments and aid agencies should compel all of these stakeholders to take a hard look at them, said Ed Schenkenberg of the Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies, which includes 80 members from Oxfam and Care to lesser-known NGOs.

“If NGOs expect preferential treatment from a given government to allow us in, then we must offer something in return which is our reputation,” he noted.

Schenkenberg said that sending inappropriate or insensitive aid like pork to Muslim nations does not arise with accredited member agencies.

“Since the mid-90s we have been working on how to improve the reputation of humanitarian NGOs,” he said, “to make them more accountable and develop standards.”

One of the most well-known “first responders” in times of disaster around the globe, whether natural or man-made, is Medecins Sans Frontieres. Its doctors are usually the first to arrive and the last to leave and MSF is so self-sufficient it can be completely operational on the ground in 24 hours.

>> Medical Relief Group Eyes Long-Term Commitment in Field Staff

According to Francoise Saulnier, MSF’s legal director, the group has had its own humanitarian assistance standards for a long time and they have been used as guidelines by other NGOs. Nevertheless, she considers the IDRL legal guidelines “a very important step to improve professionalism as more and more organizations get involved in relief efforts.”

Consulting all stakeholders

A hundred years ago the Red Cross was practically the only international disaster relief provider. But over time, many other NGOs joined the cause, as did government aid agencies and the United Nations, through its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In addition, there has been a boom in corporate humanitarian assistance and governments willing to provide not only money but boots on the ground.

Frequently, though, these are military boots, as with the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the Haitian earthquake, which may pose problems for some governments. Problems may be compounded when a natural disaster occurs in a conflict zone where humanitarian workers must be accompanied by armed security guards in order to do their work. Most recently, the Taliban in Pakistan threatened to target foreign aid workers leading to the use of soldiers to accompany them. Aid workers around the globe – from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo – are facing security threats.

Many NGOs are unhappy with this blurring of the line between soldier and humanitarian worker.

Then there is an increasing number of logistics and technology companies selling transportation services, satellite technology and other products and services crucial in humanitarian response work, like IBM, Siemens and DHL. Despite their best humanitarian intentions, some governments may see such aid as a way to access countries more easily during a time of weakness.

Perhaps with this in mind, the U.N. and the World Economic Forum established, also in 2007, a set of principles for businesses, known as the Philanthropic Guiding Principles for Private Sector Engagement in Humanitarian Action. The IDRL guidelines, however, are the first to address the legal issues faced by all players on the disaster relief scene.

When non-traditional actors and private individuals show up, governments get nervous,” said Fisher. “Who do we trust? Who do we let in? The pressure from the international donor community is just let the aid in. ‘People need it now! Throw open your borders!’ This can result in sending untrained personnel who lack understanding of local needs with an attitude of ‘get out of our way and let us do our work’.”

The Red Cross is working with the International Parliamentary Union and a team of lawyers from around the world to help governments make legislative changes.

“We have had a very positive reception from” members of parliament, said Elizabeth Azevedo, IPU’s development officer.

About the IDRL guidelines, she said: “This is not just a bunch of lawyers telling others what to do but a completely voluntary framework for how legislation can be modified at the national level. A government can place its own restrictions on the aid it will or will not accept. Sometimes new laws aren’t needed, just new policies and making the guidelines available can be helpful.”

To speed up awareness and adoption of IDRL, the Red Cross has begun formal technical advisory projects for eighteen governments, namely: Austria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, France, Haiti, Germany, the Netherlands, Sierra Leone, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Peru, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Vanuatu and Pakistan.

In November 2011, the Red Cross will take stock of how many countries have adopted new legislation based on IDRL at its next international convention in Geneva. Fisher is optimistic.

“Passing new laws takes a long time,” he said, “but being prepared costs nothing and no country can be sure it won’t need disaster assistance someday.”

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About the author

  • Pamela Taylor

    Pamela served as Devex News correspondent in Geneva. She is a journalist, editor and journalism trainer with 30 years experience in the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East who specializes in development and human rights reporting.

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