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Japan and its implications for the international humanitarian system

ALNAP - Fri, 18 Mar 2011 12:43 GMT
Author: Kim Scriven
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Like many people, the reaction of the ALNAP Secretariat to the unfolding events in Japan has been, along with shock, an urge to find ways to provide help. As with any sudden-onset emergency, our immediate response was to check whether ALNAP research would be helpful to those mounting the emergency response.

For ALNAP to act in this way is established practice. We have a range of Lessons Papers and other material based on learning from our Members, and our networked structure allows us to get the appropriate information into the hands of those responding on the ground.

Most of the learning from past emergencies was from situations where the host government has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster and had requested international assistance. Looking at the material we had, and what we were hearing about the emergency, we quickly realised that much of what we had was of limited relevance. As the week has gone on it has become obvious operational agencies were also struggling with the urge to do something.

The difficulty is that the situation in Japan, although undoubtedly an immense human tragedy, is very different to the less developed country contexts in which most of us are used to operating in. Specifically:

  • Japan is the world’s third largest economy, and has at its disposable immense resources for response and recovery.
  • Japan is one of the most advanced nations when it comes to dealing with earthquakes, and they have excellent state capacity to respond, and has not appealed for international assistance.
  • The Japanese Red Cross alone has already mobilised over 100 response teams, and in total has over two million trained volunteers in the country.


In the UK, the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), which coordinates funding appeals across 13 major NGOs, has laid out clearly why it is not appealing for funds for its members to respond:

The collective expertise of the DEC’s member agencies is primarily in responding to disasters in poorer developing countries where the kind of help required after a disaster is quite different from in a developed country. In poorer countries, infrastructure is usually weak, government agencies often have limited capacity and many people are already extremely vulnerable even before a disaster due to chronic poverty.

Some agencies are now implementing limited relief activities based on their specific expertise, for instance Save the Children and WFP appear to have small scale responses, while the Tzu Chi Foundation is also responding. Other agencies with partners in the country are mobilising resources to support them, or fundraising for their unrestricted humanitarian funds.

As the tragic events in Japan continue to unfold, with the spectre of a large-scale nuclear disaster, the focus is and should be on finding sensible and useful ways to assist Japan and its people. Beyond this however, there may be important lessons for humanitarian agencies about the need to evolve in order to keep pace with the changing contexts in which they now find themselves operating.

Firstly, recent events in Japan and elsewhere have demonstrated that the mechanisms in place to facilitate appeals for international assistance need to become more sophisticated. While there is still a fundamental difference in the ability of rich and poor countries to deal with disasters (think Japan vs. Haiti), the distinction is becoming increasing blurred in the middle. This was discussed at the 26th ALNAP Meeting in Malaysia last November, and seen as the need to move from a model of top-down ‘humanitarian assistance’, to a more collaborative model of ‘humanitarian cooperation’ where the capacities of national governments are supported and enabled to respond as effectively as possible.

Secondly, as global vulnerability shifts and grows, agencies must develop their ability to respond in a relevant and appropriate way to humanitarian needs wherever they may be. The system must invest in developing the adaptive capacity needed to remain responsive and relevant in a world of rapidly shifting risks and vulnerabilities. The DEC only last week was calling for agencies to prepare for the next 3-5 big urban disasters that will almost definitely occur over the next ten years. Work by the Humanitarian Futures Programme and others, has stressed the need for agencies to think strategically about the changing drivers of crises and disasters, whether they be political, economic, ecological or demographic.

As it becomes apparent that the public increasingly looks to humanitarian agencies to provide leadership and action during times of uncertainty and crisis, these challenges are becoming more pressing than ever. What other lessons can be learnt from the recent history of large scale disasters in more developed countries, such as Japan, New Zealand and Chile?

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