It is a special honour for me, as a representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to be with you today at this plenary Session.
Its theme - "effective early warning, relief and reconstruction" - could hardly be more appropriate today, as the world comes to terms with recent disasters including the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the drought and famine in the Sahel region, and Hurricane Katrina which caused so much destruction in the United States of America.
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are defined by international law as the auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field. As such, they have a special relationship with their governments, and they are generally mandated with important roles and responsibilities in disaster preparedness and response.
Tasked with providing emergency shelter and support, the American Red Cross has been meeting the needs of thousands of New Orleans residents in nearly 300 shelters throughout nine states since before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. It is serving 300,000 meals daily, and is working closely with local health authorities and partners to provide health and emotional support services to those evacuated.
The earthquake and tsunami disaster which struck off the coast of Indonesia on 26 December 2004 led to the loss of over a quarter of a million lives and devastation in no fewer than 12 countries in South East Asia, South Asia and East Africa.
In the Indian Ocean region, the International Federation through its member National Societies, has been in the forefront of work to respond to the recent tsunami. Our first assessments of damage led to our first preliminary appeal being launched less than twelve hours after the disaster striking. This was followed by an unprecedented mobilisation of resources at local, regional and international level to address the most immediate needs.
Now, more then eight months after the tsunami, recovery and reconstruction after the tsunami are under way, as we want to see people move quickly into their new homes, communities resume their livelihoods and children back into their rebuilt schools.
However, we must not let our urge to see funds spent quickly compromise the basic principles for sustainable recovery. Without proper planning and community consultation, we risk delivering unsustainable, inappropriate assistance, including building houses where people do not want to or should not live.
First of all, we have pledged to 'build back better', as reconstruction must leave communities in a safer state. That requires careful planning, sometimes using new and innovative methods.
Second, what is appropriate in one place may not necessarily be so in another - we must tailor our responses to specific needs. Therefore, local communities and governments must be in charge.
Families made homeless must take an active part in designing and building their homes so that they meet their needs and are culturally appropriate, and it is particularly important for women to fully take part in these decisions.
And third, whole communities are being rebuilt. This means the simultaneous building of homes, roads, schools and health clinics, the provision of safe water and sanitation facilities as well as the necessary services.
Again, this requires comprehensive, locally based planning. For us this means providing encouragement, material and financial help and advice, but also allowing sufficient time and space for these community-based processes to take their proper course.
In summary, successful disaster management is based on local skills and resources, and community-led approaches are more likely to be self-sustaining.
Earlier this year in Kobe, Japan, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction identified five priorities in its action plan - the Hyogo Framework for Action:
• To ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation;
• To identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning;
• To use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels;
• To reduce underlying risk factors;
• To strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.
The International Federation believes that disasters are a humanitarian and a development concern. Not only is there a growing body of evidence that countries of 'low human development' are disproportionately affected by the occurrence and impact of disasters but that people's vulnerability to hazards has increased through failed development.
Moreover, disasters threaten to undo development gains and prevent the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.
One of the main lessons from the recent tragedies is that no state - no matter its level of development - can consider itself immune from such phenomena, and further investments must be made in developing effective early warning systems.
This is all the more important as the number of weather-related disasters continues to increase, and the need for warnings as well as preparedness becomes all the more acute.
There has been a great deal of publicity about the need for sophisticated early-warning systems for natural disasters, especially those created by tsunamis, but much less attention to the need to link those sophisticated systems to the communities which bear the brunt of the disasters.
Warning systems by themselves are, however, of little value unless communities understand how they work, and know how to act and respond. Warning systems must therefore be "people-centred". This requires developing an integrated approach that effectively links high-tech technology and communication systems with low-tech community awareness and preparedness.
The transmission of warnings is often one of the major roles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the late preparedness stage before disasters strike.
As an example, in the Bay of Bengal region - an area particularly vulnerable to cyclones and floods - our volunteers are trained and equipped to bring meteorological warnings to the most remote communities and help them prepare for nature's onslaught.
Warnings of extreme weather events are transmitted by radio transmission from the capital through to district level and then to local communities where our trained volunteers take the necessary messages and directions to the people themselves.
The last link in this high-tech/low-tech chain - for instance volunteers using bicycles and "mouth-to-mouth" communication - is thereby just as indispensable as the weather satellites that provide the hard data that triggers the system.
Chair, Allow me to reflect briefly on how parliamentarians can contribute to more effective disaster management by creating an enabling environment through legislation.
When disasters strike, there are times when the resources of an affected country are overwhelmed and international assistance is required. In these situations, it is essential that such assistance can be provided quickly, effectively, to the highest possible standards and for the immediate and long term benefit of affected communities.
Careful examination or revision of national laws and policies, as well as regional and international treaties, declarations and agreements, will determine their current and potential impact on international disaster response operations.
Particularly relevant in this regard are the legal aspects of issues such as: offers and requests for assistance; the entry and facilitation of foreign relief organizations, personnel, relief goods and equipment; the coordination of assistance; and standards of quality and accountability.
Parliament's role in working with civil society was also discussed during the 2004 Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference. As one of the conference participants remarked "civil society is an essential component of our socio-political system and one of the most effective agents of social action".
Civil society should be directly involved in decision-making process so that the will of the people is respected. The relation was seen crucial in particular for promoting good governance and reducing poverty in the society.
The Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World refers to volunteerism as holding enormous scope for broadening participation in governance and promoting more equitable outcomes for people.
In 2004 the Federation together with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Volunteers developed a Guidance Note concerning volunteerism and legislation.
Parliamentarians have a vital role to play in ensuring that all people are able to volunteer their talents to the well-being of their communities and of the world - whether engaging in early warning or disaster response, or contributing to the Millennium Development Goals more generally.
Chair, In a few days, UN Member States will gather together to review the progress made since their commitment through the Millennium Declaration.
The Declaration clearly recognises factors such as good governance and the role of the civil society, and we see the review as an opportunity to renew our engagement, through our activities and partnerships, to support governments to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.
We have been enjoying the recognition locally and internationally as a reliable actor at the community level in disaster preparedness, response and recovery.
We wish to carry on our responsibility towards the most vulnerable population groups, and to enhance our partnership at all levels working together for people-centered, inclusive sustainable development.