Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lives lost through lack of leadership in UN response to humanitarian crises, Britain warns

from the Guardian

by Julian Borger,

Britain will issue a warning today that a lack of leadership in the UN's handling of humanitarian emergencies is "costing lives", and will call for urgent reforms because natural and man-made disasters are increasingly frequent.

In a speech to the UN in Geneva, Gareth Thomas, the international development minister, will say that conflicts, climate change and the scarcity of water and other natural resources, together with rising food prices, have combined to create an accelerating string of crises of unprecedented scale.

"The number of reported disasters over the past 10 years was 60% higher than the previous decade," Thomas will say, according to a text of the speech made available to the Guardian. The humanitarian response, he will argue, has not kept pace.

Thomas will identify the principal problem as a lack of properly trained humanitarian coordinators to oversee disaster relief in crisis-hit countries.

"Of the 42 poor countries most at risk of conflict or natural disaster, one third do not have a humanitarian coordinator. So in some of the worst disasters there is no one on the ground to lead the international response," Thomas will say. "That lack of leadership costs lives."

Speaking to the Guardian yesterday, Thomas said that where there are coordinators, they are often not the right people. "One of the major problems is that many country-based UN humanitarian coordinators don't have the skills or right background to do their jobs," he said.

As an example, Thomas will point to Chad, where he argues "poor coordination meant that drinking water was allocated unfairly and people in desperate need went thirsty".

"This was counter to basic humanitarian principles and is something that cannot happen again," he said yesterday. British and UN officials agree that water distribution among refugees from Darfur and Chadian nationals made homeless by conflict in the region was haphazard and did not adhere to international standards, leaving many without adequate drinking water.

The occasion for the minister's speech will be an executive committee meeting of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), where there will be guarded support for his arguments in the hall.

A senior UNHCR official said yesterday that "in every single case" the job of UN coordinator in crisis countries was given to the UN official already overseeing development work in that country, even though managing development aid and disaster relief require quite different skills and training.

Thomas will argue today: "Finding the best people for the job will require a more credible, transparent selection process; we need humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to put forward candidates; we need more candidates from developing countries and more women."

Link to full article. May expire in future.

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