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.


  1. Dear Chris
    Thank you for the article. It is something that I have thought for a very long time that Aid Agencies are very good at squeezing money out of people (Governments included) but not very good at co-ordinating responces.
    One of my memories of the Philipines Typhoon, the Boxing Day Tsunami and this earthquake is the piles of food and water stacked up at airports with no way of deliverying it beyond the airport.
    Since the UK has a wealth of experiance in this very area, has an airfield and storage complex at Mildenhall with top notch facilities comming free we should be pushing this idea forward.
    Repeatedly the international community makes mistakes, the number of dog teams, medical teams etc sent to the wrong place in repeated disasters is criminal. Set up a UN mandated immediate responce organisation, with second hand helicopters and transport planes that can be a first responce. Have a crisis co-ordination planning cell, have each country contribute staff (for example I saw some excellant work done by an Israeli medical field hospital) on a rotational basis. It has to be UN mandated to remove the "political" stupidity we have when it is seen as UK Aid. The UK could use it's Dfid budget a lot more effectively providing the core funding for such an organisation. As another point lloyds of London already have a shipping agent network in place for 100's of years that is generaly in the right area who know the local logistics position as they work day in day out with them.
    The problem is where to you start. How do you get this on the agenda ? Because although many organisation did and continue to do amazing work in Nepal the fact is we could get a lot more result for the $ spent if it was done in a cioordinated way.

    1. Hello Anon, thanks for dropping by,

      It'd have to be through the UN and I think a comment in the forthcoming SDSR to propose it would get the ball rolling. Phillip Hammond as the Foreign Sec and former Defence Sec would be the obvious choice to take the lead in banging the drum for this. I could envisage countries "donating" things like transports as being easier to establish than trying to buy new equipment from scratch, so it might be that at any one time there would be several C-17s from various nations earmarked to drop everything else at a moments notice and come to the rescue right away.

      And it does strike me (I know I shouldn't start sentences with an 'and') that as one of the biggest issues is always logistics then military officers are perfectly placed to take the lead, given that logistics are something of a military speciality. I like the Lloyds idea as well, tapping civilian expertise to make it all work together. Get the aid agencies on board and the ball would be well and truly rolling.