Learning from the tsunami: the art of receiving aid

Published: 26 December 2014 12:05 CET

By Andy Channelle, Lucia Cipullo, Luis Luna and David Fisher

It has been 10 years since an earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra sent giant waves thundering across the Indian Ocean, leading to one of history’s worst disasters.  Simultaneously affecting 14 countries, killing almost 285,000 people, and  leaving hundreds of thousands displaced, the Indian Ocean tsunami drew a massive global humanitarian response.  Successful in many ways, this enormous operation also pointed out the need not only to prepare for disasters – but also the level of international help required when events come in this size. 

Like most of their peers around the world, the countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had few pre-established rules for managing incoming humanitarian assistance.  As a result, regulatory bottlenecks hampered relief in this exceptionally complex operation.  International relief workers faced lengthy and expensive processes to obtain visas.  Food, medicines, radio equipment and other critical items were stalled in customs – in some cases for months – or charged eye-popping duties and fees.  Registration requirements were often opaque, appropriate government focal points unclear, and coordination chaotic. 

At the same time, some (mostly inexperienced) foreign responders sent inappropriate aid – from expired medicines by the truckload, to culturally unacceptable food (such as pork in predominantly Muslim areas), to winter clothes, among many other examples.  Some organizations sent staff without clear qualifications, organized duplicative programmes or competed for high-visibility communities leaving others without help.  A great deal of people in need were helped nevertheless – diseases were avoided and hundreds of thousands were rehoused – but at a much greater cost in time, money and effectiveness than should have been the case.

In the years since the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia has led the way in developing clearer rules for humanitarian response. Drawing on a set of international guidelines adopted by the state parties to the Geneva Conventions at the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2007, the government has adopted some of the world’s most comprehensive domestic regulations on the role of international institutions and foreign NGOs in disaster response. These procedures were tested to an extent in the West Sumatra earthquake of 2009 and the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010, and showed their merit in the resulting relief efforts. 

Pak Budi Adiputro, Secretary General of Indonesian Red Cross from 2009 – 2014, was involved in this process and continues to support the strengthening of the legal framework in Indonesia, including current revisions to the existing guidelines on international assistance and cooperation. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we have the right laws and procedures in place to facilitate international assistance. More importantly, we need to make sure that these procedures are well-known, and continually strengthened.” 

A similar picture emerged from another mega-disaster, the anniversary of which is close to today’s date: the Port-au-Prince (Haiti) earthquake of January 12, 2010.  In the days after that event, regulatory authorities were so badly affected themselves that they could impose little control over incoming humanitarian assistance.  As a result, some of the “aid” that competed for the extremely narrow logistical pipeline (due to the severely damaged airport and seaport) ranged from unwanted used clothes, to canned foods and bottled water.  Some well-intentioned responders arrived totally unprepared --  unable to communicate in French or Creole, and without their own food, equipment or means of shelter.  They quickly became a burden in the midst of the crisis.  When authorities were able to reassert some controls, however, bureaucratic delays reappeared, creating further limits on the entry of the right aid.  As part of the move to “build back better” after the earthquake, the Haitian Red Cross has been working with its authorities to develop new laws and rules for international relief.  Several bills are currently pending approval in parliament and responsible agencies – from customs to immigration – are adopting more flexible procedures.

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history, struck the Philippines.  The Philippines government was quick to welcome international assistance, and a ‘one stop shop’ was established by national authorities to facilitate the entry of relief goods and the associated customs procedures. Immigration authorities also established a task force to help facilitate visa renewal procedures for relief personnel at various field locations.  While red tape was laudably reduced, a lack of oversight also allowed for some other problems.  Reports emerged of agencies arriving unprepared, putting unnecessary strain on local resources. Stories suggested that some were dumping relief goods with no distribution plan, in addition to medical practitioners acting outside their areas of competence. Philippine Congressman Rufus Rodriguez says the disaster has been a catalyst, exposing the need to continue developing the necessary laws and procedures. “What we saw after Haiyan was that, yes the Philippines is well-prepared. Yes we have a national disaster management law in place. But in many ways this wasn’t enough.”

Rodriguez put forward a bill in 2012 to comprehensively address the facilitation and regulation of international disaster assistance, based on a model law developed by the IFRC, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  He says this will avoid the challenge of putting together ad hoc procedures during an emergency and, ultimately, save more lives.

These disasters demonstrated that good intentions and a desire to save lives is often not enough: what is needed are strong, comprehensive legal frameworks that will ensure a swift, effective, coordinated and regulated response.  More importantly, these laws and frameworks need to be implemented properly, and regularly revised – before a disaster hits. To date, some 18 countries have adopted laws or rules based on the 2007 guidelines, but many more need to act.  After all, as Pak Budi Adiputro explains, “it’s not a matter of if another mega disaster strikes, but when."