August 21, 2015

How International Aid reaches Disaster Victims


Relief workers need a sophisticated and flawless mechanism to reach disaster areas and work there

Again and again we see, hear or read in the media that a disaster has struck somewhere in the world. It may be a natural disaster (earthquake, flood, volcanic eruption) or manmade (industrial, armed conflict). These events usually make the news because they cause tremendous human suffering and material destruction. It may be that, figuratively speaking, a whole country and its structures collapse, as was the case in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Another extremely tragic aspect of these catastrophes is the huge number of casualties and people left without shelter. In purely numerical terms, this might not mean a lot to the Estonian people. But if we consider the number of people left homeless after the 2005 Pakistani earthquake (about 2,000,000) on an Estonian scale, we can see that those who needed immediate help in finding or building shelter amounted to nearly two Estonias. In addition, water, food and first aid were needed. Another example is the Jordanian refugee camp for Syrian war refugees at Za’atar. Today, there are more people living in this temporary camp than there are in the city of Narva. The camp structure resembles a town, but instead of houses there are tents or prefabs. In both these examples, it is clear that a country in such a state might not manage without international aid.

How does the world help in such cases?

There are several options. First, bilateral agreements between countries should be noted, as these amount to “help thy neighbour”. In situations where this is not sufficient, the country in crisis may ask for international help. One of the biggest and most likely channels in this case is the United Nations, whose rapid response options include sending an UNDAC (United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination) team to the location. This is a reserve of experts, financed by UN member states, who have been trained on a common basis to respond to disasters. As of 2013, the UNDAC reserve had a pool of slightly more than 200 active members from 81 countries; 38 of them (including the Estonian member) were self-financed, and the rest were financed by the member states. In order to simplify procedures and optimise expenses, the countries that have joined the UNDAC movement have been divided into regions: Americas/Caribbean, Europe/Africa/Middle East, and Asia/Oceania. Regional division does not mean that the members from a certain region are deployed only within their region. It is true that, in financial terms, it is more rational to send experts to catastrophes in their own regions but this does not exclude wider action. The UNDAC team’s primary task is always to reach the disaster area as quickly as possible and conduct “surveillance” in order to understand what has happened and what kind of help the affected country really needs. Another crucial role is to support the coordination of international relief in the country because it is very complicated for the receiving country when there are suddenly dozens of countries and hundreds of organisations all wanting to help in some way. In this case, UNDAC teams support the local structures and sometimes even the government.
The UNDAC reserve is managed by the UN organ OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). To become part of this “family”, a member state must open a mission account, into which the costs of a possible mission, e.g. airfares and daily allowances, are transferred. Another important step is to appoint an UNDAC contact person in the member state, who serves as the communications channel between OCHA and UNDAC members. The UNDAC contact person can propose not to deploy their country’s UNDAC member if, for example, that country finds it politically unacceptable to support a particular mission. The contact person’s third important task is to recommend new applicants to the OCHA and, if they are approved, send them to participate in a course. In order to use the mission account and deploy a person, OCHA requires a binding contract, usually for two years. According to this contract, the two-year salary of an UNDAC member is a nominal US$2. All of UNDAC’s activity in the disaster area is free for the affected country.
A compulsory programme of courses and training ensures the conformity of the experts’ work and approaches. First, they must complete the foundation course, which lasts 12 days and teaches the basics of international aid. The backgrounds and profiles of the experts might vary greatly, ranging from rescue workers to environmental specialists. Medical workers are a particularly highly valued group in this field. After completing the foundation course, the future reservist is offered the chance to sign a two-year contract. This does not remove the obligation to participate in training, courses and drills. The experts still need to complete various operation-based training, the most important of which is on the methodology of gathering and processing data, the coordination of international humanitarian aid, work with environmental disasters, and the increasingly important matter of civilian–military cooperation. In addition to courses, UNDAC members are required to participate in a system of practical training, one of the best known of which is the cooperation training called TRIPLEX, which takes place every two years. In past years, Estonia has contributed experts to organise this training. In order to stay up to date with events in OCHA, UNDAC members must undergo a refresher course in their region every two years. There are currently three active members in the UNDAC group in Estonia, which is financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and altogether there are five trained aid workers.
When a disaster occurs somewhere in the world and the UNDAC team is deployed, an entire mechanism starts up, and this needs to work very quickly and flawlessly. As noted above, the affected country must first ask the UN for assistance. The information is then passed to OCHA, which simultaneously notifies members of the UNDAC reserve and national contact persons. The alert is given via text message and email. The first communication about the possible mission has the code M1. UNDAC members must respond, whether they are ready to go or not; there is no obligation to participate. Once it is clear who is ready to go, a team is selected. A message titled M2 is then sent out with the names of the team members. M3a is a notification that the mission is being initiated, and M3b that it is being cancelled. (It is possible that the UNDAC team will be withdrawn for some reason in the course of planning, for example if the situation in the disaster area is less serious than was at first estimated and the country does not require assistance.)
The UNDAC team deployed will usually have up to ten members. The number might be larger or smaller, depending on the scale of the disaster. The UNDAC members’ departure time is six hours after receiving the alert, which should mean they arrive in the very early stages of a disaster. This is the time when the real scope of a disaster’s impact becomes clear. Equipment and activities are tailored to each individual. After signing the contract, each new member receives a mission package, which includes personal equipment, among which are clothes, a sleeping bag, dishes and water treatment systems. The most important item is a jacket with UN markings, which enables UNDAC members to be identified. All the equipment needs to be pre-packed, as departure may be very urgent. Office support is also necessary in order to start work immediately. As team members work in circumstances where daily necessities, including electricity, may be absent, they take along the essentials for setting up an office, from computers and printers to paper and pencils. Nowadays, the Internet is also a key asset, and if there is no Internet access in the disaster area the UNDAC team will use its own devices, which are also part of the mission equipment and provide Internet access even in the middle of nowhere and amidst chaos. When the situation calls for a larger coordination centre, help may be requested from another international body, the International Humanitarian Partnership (IHP). This is an association of countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Germany/Luxembourg, United Kingdom) who assist the UN by providing office facilities as well as staff accommodation camps in the disaster area.
Once the UNDAC team arrives in the disaster area, their first task is to contact the local UN representation and announce their arrival. Next, they inform the receiving government and governmental institutions of their presence in the country and mandate. At the same time, they analyse the existing data and map the topics where data is insufficient. The primary focus is on the implementation and scope of rescue work, the need for medical aid for the victims, the need for drinking water, food and temporary housing, and the general hygiene situation. The information gathered is used to draft a preliminary report on the situation and priority needs. The report is sent all over the world through OCHA channels and is the first guidance in starting humanitarian aid operations. The second essential activity is to receive the already arriving aid workers and direct them to the correct locations in the disaster area. The team selects certain airports, harbours and checkpoints to be used for entering the affected country, of which aid workers from all over the world are notified. This ensures the workers are officially admitted and sent to locations which need the most help in an organised manner. At the same time, depending on developments, situation reports are sent out to help aid and relief organisations compile specific and targeted supplies.
The UNDAC team’s active work lasts about three weeks, during which time major organisations such as the World Food Programme, World Health Organization and UNICEF set up their own operations, and they are responsible for further rebuilding. When the UNDAC mission ends, its duties are passed either to the local government institutions or the local OCHA office.
Since the UNDAC system was established at the beginning of the 1990s, there have been about 250 UNDAC missions, and Estonians have participated in 13 of these. The list of countries is very wide-ranging, and includes Iran, Sudan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Suriname, Laos, Namibia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Uganda, Tajikistan, Turkey, Malawi and Sierra Leone.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.