BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Unusually heavy rains unleashed devastating floods in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam this year, disrupting the lives of some 15 million people and killing around 1,000. Damage to property and infrastructure runs to billions of dollars.
Yet none of the countries asked for international assistance, which would have resulted in a U.N.-led relief effort. Instead, the governments repeatedly said they didn’t need it.
“It was extremely frustrating for us to sit by while Thailand suffered from the worst floods in half a century,” said one aid worker who did not want to be named.
There is closer cooperation between aid agencies and the Cambodian government but work is still limited and Vietnam has also kept a tight rein on aid agencies, the aid worker added.
“This is the number one challenge for the humanitarian actors in Southeast Asia. What role do we play?”
As countries in Southeast Asia grow richer and become more developed, governments are less willing to ask for international assistance when a natural disaster strikes.
“What we're seeing here is an evolution of national and regional capacity, happening at very different rates in different countries across the region but most definitely a reluctance to be seen to be asking for external assistance,” said Oliver Lacey-Hall, regional head of the United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA.
The three countries are also part of the 10-member regional bloc ASEAN which last year agreed on landmark legislation to manage and prevent disasters.
"The clear aspiration of the ASEAN member states is that when disasters happen in our backyard, we'll do it, which is great,” Lacey-Hall told AlertNet. “The same thing has happened in Europe and the international humanitarian response system needs to adapt to that."
But there is also the issue of 'face' - the concept of maintaining dignity and a good self-image.
“It's also a matter of culture,” said David Verboom, head of the European Commission's humanitarian aid office ECHO in Thailand, where requesting aid "can seem like losing face".
Lacey-Hall added that countries may also fear damaging their attractiveness to investors.
“Thailand has massive investment from overseas. A cry for help indicates you can't manage – what message are you sending to your investors?” he said. “(It is) national pride combined with national capacity.”
Some say it is also a case of semantics because while the countries say they won’t request international assistance they appreciate any support they’re given.
CURRENT SYSTEM NEEDS RE-THINK
There is still a role for aid agencies in the region – Philippines has just accepted international assistance after typhoon Washi killed some 1,000 people this week.
But both Lacey-Hall and Verboom say there needs to be a rethink of the current humanitarian aid system.
“Our aid system needs to be adjusted – it should not look like the wealthy, well-established and experienced West coming to help poorer countries, because it is not the reality,” Verboom told AlertNet.
According to Lacey-Hall, governments are also concerned about the consequences of a formal request for help.
“I was in Aceh post-tsunami in 2005. On the tenth day, you've got 5,000 people on the ground who weren't there 10 days before, representing 500 or 600 organisations,” he recalled.
“That's not really a well-organised international humanitarian response. I think we have a real responsibility to say 'enough of that, it has to stop'.”
Lacey-Hall says aid agencies need to be clearer about what a traditional professional humanitarian system could provide to a country. A solution is to develop an easy-to-understand and transparent guide for governments.
“We should also be trying like crazy to transfer knowledge and capacity to regional and national institutions,” he said. “It requires a far more sustained engagement at a country level from our part than just turning around and saying if you need us give us a call.”
In late October, as flooding became worse, ECHO provided €5.5 million ($7.17 million) to the three countries without a formal request.
Unlike the United Nations, which is bound by a General Assembly resolution that says “humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country and in principle on the basis of an appeal by the affected country”, ECHO’s mandate is needs-based.
“We do not need to wait for an official request, we can respond based on needs assessments conducted by partner organisations that are working on the ground with involved authorities and stakeholders,” Verboom said.
With around €1 billion in annual funding, ECHO works with aid agencies registered in affected countries so there is little need to parachute in new organisations. It can respond within 72 hours to release up to €3 million. Depending on needs, this can go up to €10 million in a matter of days.
In this sense, ECHO resembles the United Nations' emergency fund, CERF, which released $4 million for Cambodian flood victims despite the lack of an official request. Both tools are a way of circumnavigating the lack of desire to request formal international assistance.
IS THE FUTURE BILATERAL?
The governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam may have been unwilling to request aid through the U.N. system but accepted direct assistance from other governments.
Take Thailand as an example. Just to name a few donors, China provided $1 million in cash and 10 million yuan ($1.57 million) worth of material support. Japan is providing up to a billion yen ($12.8 million) and the United States announced $10 million in direct aid, materials and training.
Even impoverished neighbours Laos and Myanmar chipped in with 1.5 million baht ($50,000) each. Cambodia and Vietnam, themselves affected by floods, gave $50,000 and $100,000 respectively.
Is this another sign of regional unity? Maybe, but there are also concerns, as bilateral aid is often seen as being tied to the political interests of donor countries. It has been criticised for being less transparent and for not necessarily providing on the basis of need or where it has the most potential for good.