Villagers watch a drill as part of disaster preparedness efforts in the Philippines. The U.N. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is downsizing its operations in the Asia and the Pacific. Photo by: Veejay Villafranca for EJC / ECHO / CC BY-ND

The United Nations is shifting much of its humanitarian coordination focus away from Asia-Pacific as nations in the world’s most populous — and most vulnerable to natural disasters and the impact of climate change — region become more capable of handling disaster risk preparation and response efforts on their own.

That and trying to manage the reality that finite resources can’t exactly match the increasing humanitarian requirements elsewhere in the world.

This is according to Oliver Lacey-Hall, former Asia-Pacific head and now chief of the Southeast Asian liaison office of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The past 12 months has been a challenging year for humanitarians around the world, according to OCHA’s latest annual report, as the scale and number of emergencies “stretched the international humanitarian system to its limits.”

“There are two reasons … firstly, a clear recognition that disaster-prone countries in the region have made a great deal of progress in putting into place capacities for disaster management,” he told Devex. “Secondly, humanitarian requirements are rapidly increasing in other parts of the world but resources to meet those needs are not keeping pace with demand.”

Among the recent emergencies humanitarians have addressed in recent months include the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and protracted conflicts in Iraq, South Sudan and Syria.

Lacey-Hall explained that Asia-Pacific’s “enhanced capacities, as well as ongoing engagement with international humanitarian organizations” have led to coordination processes and capacity requirements that address both “preparedness and response work” during disasters. He suggested countries might have already learned from past experiences and are taking “disaster management issues very seriously.”

OCHA will close its offices in Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, and will “radically downsize” operations in Indonesia, where massive coordination efforts were led following the 2004 tsunami that killed over 120,000 people. About 95 percent of jobs in six offices across the country will be eliminated, with the remaining staff staying in Jakarta.

While operations and presence will be gradually reduced over time in the region, Lacey-Hall stressed that “technical support to humanitarian partners and governments is [and will] still be made available when requested.”

Operational cycle

Is it standard practice for OCHA to reduce operations in countries that have proved themselves capable of handling disaster risk reduction efforts on their own? Lacey-Hall said decisions are done in “close consultation” with the affected governments.

“Each country is different and so the length and scope of our engagement is based on a clear understanding of the specific context,” he explained. It is important that these governments communicate clearly the type of humanitarian coordination assistance they would request from OCHA so that the U.N. agency’s response will be tailored to their needs.

In the case of Vanuatu, for instance, the government “specifically limited” OCHA’s engagement to meeting the immediate needs of people affected by Cyclone Pam. As such, the U.N. agency — together with its humanitarian partners — only drew up a three-month operational assessment for the Pacific nation, which the government then approved.

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Lacey-Hall further explained that OCHA is not disengaging completely from the region. It will still maintain a significant presence in quake-hit Nepal, at least until the end of this year, and will continue to work closely with the governments of the Philippines and Myanmar.

“Additionally we maintain regional offices in [Bangkok, Thailand,] and [Suva, Fiji,] with sufficient capacity to provide immediate and robust support,” he said. “These two regional offices also provide technical support to governments and humanitarian partners in countries across the region for disaster response preparedness planning.”

Lacey-Hall also shared that OCHA has laid out plans to transfer affected staff to other countries of operations or to U.N. agencies in the region.

“OCHA aims to ensure that staff [members] are retained wherever possible — either through transfer to other U.N. agencies in the same country or through transfer to another country,” Lacey-Hall concluded. With the upward trajectory in staffing requirements at the U.N. system, “transfer opportunities are usually available.”

Do you agree that countries in Asia and the Pacific have grown more capable of preparing and responding to disasters on their own? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.