Governments, academics, humanitarians, military leaders, and activists from across the Asia-Pacific region will gather in Tokyo tomorrow to glean expertise on responses to humanitarian crises across the region in the lead-up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.
“What I am expecting of this summit are game-changing recommendations - not the usual ones,” Oliver Lacey-Hall, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, told IRIN. “I want the humanitarian actors to really listen to those who are not used to articulating their needs - affected people, academics, the private sector, local governments - people who don’t usually have a voice.”
Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world. From 1975 to 2011, Asia had the world’s highest number of fatalities from natural disasters - 1.5 million. Research has also shown that more than 130 million people in the region are affected by sub-national conflicts. In global terms, 89 percent of all people affected by emergencies live in Asia.
The World Humanitarian Summit, which will be hosted by the UN in Istanbul in 2016, is preceded by eight regional consultations to gather information and perspectives on humanitarian responses around the world. It is taking place amid both increasing spending and increasing need for humanitarian responses around the world.
“We are struggling to find an answer to what exactly constitutes effective humanitarian action,” said Lacey-Hall. “Governments have very different views of an effective humanitarian response. Old mechanisms and the days when humanitarian assistance was simply logistical - such as planes being flown to deliver food and supplies - are close to being over.”
Participants in the Tokyo session are eager to share local experiences to inform global response practices.
Victoria Lanting, a board member of the Philippines Red Cross who is working in the ongoing response to the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, explained: “The Philippines is routinely called the most disaster-risky country in the world. Among many other things, this means, Filipinos have experience of response in all forms.”
But, Lanting argued, “disasters of Haiyan magnitude should not be a way of life - fast, effective and transparent humanitarian response should be. Equipping the citizenry with skills… is more relevant now than ever.”
The Aceh experience
Rina Meutia, who will coordinate a session on conflict needs, told IRIN she was eager to bring her experiences from the response in Aceh to bear on the global humanitarian system.
“Aceh was one of the largest humanitarian operations at the time when everyone started arriving after the tsunami, Meutia said, referring to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that wiped out homes, buildings and roads, and claimed over 167,000 lives in the northern Indonesian province of Aceh. More than US$7 billion in donations and government funds poured into the province, which had experienced three decades of civil war.
“When humanitarians arrived to provide relief, many of them had no idea about the ongoing conflict, and when they learned later how complicated it was, they were surprised to know that the people they were helping recover from a natural disaster had been affected by conflict for so long, and neglected by humanitarians during that time.”
“Sometimes internationals arriving with a particular mandate to give so-called help can actually just confuse people, and even do more harm than good,” she argued. “It’s controversial and messy to even suggest that humanitarian responses should engage with political realities on the ground, but it needs to be part of this global discussion if we want future responses to be more effective.”
Experts agree that the discussions around conflict-time engagement will be a crucial component of improving the global system - including considerations about how operations in conflict areas are funded.
“I am concerned about the question of humanitarian action in conflict settings. We need to sit down and have an honest conversation whether an organization getting the majority of its funds from one single source can still be neutral,” said Lacey-Hall.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, there were 33.3 million people displaced by conflicts around the world as of January 2014 - “the highest ever number of people displaced as a consequence of conflict and violence.”
“We need to look at our core principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence - to see if we manage to uphold them in light of fundraising demands,” said Lacey-Hall.
Working in conflicts involves trade-offs, he said, pointing to the complexities of humanitarian work where “civilians are in desperate need of assistance… [but] we have to be careful about the message we give - the contextual sensibilities - and balance our commitment to humanitarian principles.”