Saturday, 23 May 2015

International Rescue

Not quite in the sense of 'Thunderbirds are go', but close.

The recent earthquake(s) and ensuing emergency in Nepal has highlighted a number of problems when it comes to international responses to natural disasters. The first was a flood of well meaning but ultimately useless individuals, many from the UK, who rushed to Nepal to offer their services in the rescue efforts having had such great memories there while backpacking many years ago. But with no training under their belt other than a degree in English Literature every one of these people actually makes the problem worse, not better, as they consume valuable resources such as shelter, food and water while offering nothing more in return than an extra pair of unskilled hands at a time where extra unskilled hands are in abundance. This apparently can be a major problem in areas that are popular with student tourists.

The second issue is coordination. With countries from all over the world throwing available resources at the problem you can end up with a quite dizzying array of ships, planes, helicopters, trucks and engineering plant all showing up at the same time, often with nobody in overall charge of assigning these resources to their most efficient use. Cue sometimes chaotic scenes at airports as there are more aircraft present than spots to safely unload them, mountains of water, food and medical supplies but not enough vehicles in the right place to distribute them, and teams of highly trained foreign military personnel with valuable skills such as building temporary shelters serving as little more than members of a human chain to carry water.

And as demonstrated by the UK's Chinook debacle, where Chinook heavy lift helicopters were flown all the way to India at great expense to help with the rescue efforts only to be sent back home because the downdraft from their rotors was considered too powerful, there is often a real shortage of impartial, expert knowledge. We'll give the Nepalese government the benefit of the doubt on this issue and assume that it had nothing to do with politics.

So how to solve the problem? Well every defence review in the UK seems to come with its own little section about how the UK military can contribute to international aid operations, so why don't we go the whole hog this time and in the next review (due later this year) just outright suggest the need to work with the UN to come up with a permanent international disaster response organisation. The idea would be to have local experts dotted around the world, formal plans in place to help organise any relief efforts, paid researchers to work on future challenges, a centralised cadre of officers who would fly out immediately and take charge of an official UN response (with the permission of the local government of course), along with centrally organised response teams staffed from military, civilian and charitable groups, with some of the equipment and expertise needed to take immediate action and to organise any follow on more effectively.

The UK government has been very keen over the years to promote its international "global player" status. Maybe the next defence review will give it a chance to actually start acting on that aspiration and genuinely taking a lead on important issues.