Time for a Humanitarian NATO

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WASHINGTON - There are two sets of policy issues emanating from the rubble and horror of Port-au-Prince: “Whither Haiti?” and “Whither relief aid?”

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah visiting the country, most of the attention is on the first question.  Is there, policymakers are asking, some dynamic by which the gravity of the earthquake will finally mobilize substantial global interest in building a functioning nation-state on the western end of Hispaniola?  Will the international donors finally sustain their development efforts sufficiently to help build the governance and economic foundations for a prosperous Haiti?

But the transatlantic community should consider policy issue number two as well.  As the former director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, I am painfully aware that most of the Haiti media articles about chaos in food distribution and medical supplies, pile-ups at the airport, squabbles among donor organizations, and disorder during the first days of the response could have applied to almost any rapid-onset disaster in the past several decades.  Just substitute Indonesia, Pakistan, or any one of a dozen other countries for Haiti in the press reports, and the stories would have been nearly identical.  The world’s humanitarian enthusiasm to respond after meta-natural disasters occur is not matched by sustained organizational preparation and coordination in between these crises.

In theory, when the United Nations created its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) in the early 1990s, the donor nations were on the pathway to success, under the aegis of the United Nations.  But, OCHA has never received the resources to do the job its founders envisaged.  And the creation of OCHA has not been matched by the development of a serious, standing disaster relief process linking the major relief providers.  To the shame of the world community, disaster victims often suffer the pangs of the damned while global relief agencies – public and private – sort out a “pick-up game.”

Having worked in such crises myself, I realize that attaining perfection in coordination is not likely, especially when a disaster emanates suddenly and unexpectedly from earthquake or tidal wave.  Those relief experts who risk their own lives to assist are tireless, committed, and courageous, and often do their absolute best to create ad hoc systems to bring a semblance of order out of chaos.  Subsets of these “first responders,” like the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), have made progress in defining standards and developing search and rescue methodology.  But, overall, we can do much, much better.

It occurs to me that the transatlantic community – which provides the majority of global relief in virtually every natural disaster – should take the lead in building a more structured response capability.  One way is for international relief policymakers to look more closely at the NATO model as a pathway forward.  NATO, while not perfect, ensures that the basic planning for and organization of military operations is carried out ahead of time, through a sustained program of joint planning, training, exercising, and operations.

If we suspend disbelief for a moment and envision – in Brussels, or London, or Ottawa – a standing organization of representatives from all the major European and North American donor nations’ development and relief agencies, significant progress could be made before the next disaster.  And, a significant number of lives could be saved in the next Haiti.

What would such an organization actually do?  Disaster relief professionals from the major donors would be detailed for one-year assignments to this organization to develop common operating procedures and common disaster relief doctrine.  International standing operating procedures would address key elements of a civilian disaster response such as how to prioritize relief supplies, how to link up with the affected government, and how to structure coordination centers.  Beyond common terminology and common operational frameworks, relief specialists from the transatlantic donor community would train together; the middle of a crisis is not the optimal occasion to meet colleagues for the first time.  Curricula on best practices in crisis response, developed by these technical experts, could serve as the basis for shared training with the UN system, international organizations, other donors, and non-governmental entities.

Such a structure — perhaps the North Atlantic Disaster Organization (NADO) – should be discussed once the situation in Haiti stabilizes.  We should not undercut the United Nations, and that is not my intent.  But, until the world as a whole is prepared seriously to meld and harmonize its disaster response resources, the North Atlantic nations, which do the heavy lifting in relief delivery, could move the ball forward by investing in a standing disaster relief coordination mechanism focused both on disaster prevention and disaster response. 

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