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When disasters strike, laws can save lives. This was the clear message delivered by Jagan Chapagain, Asia Pacific director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) who was moderating a panel discussion on legal preparedness for disasters taking place at the International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Samoan capital, Apia.
When a tsunami struck Samoa in 2009, the Government was unprepared for the deluge of support that followed in its wake. Despite good intentions, the organisations and goods that arrived in the country caused unanticipated headaches. Filomena Nelson, head of Samoa’s National Disaster Management Office highlighted some of the challenges she faced at the time.
“Organisations we’d never heard of arrived from overseas. We had to work with embassies and run background checks on them. Some came in without any understanding of our culture and traditions and there were medical teams arriving who didn’t even talk to our Health Ministry.”
Convened by the IFRC, the event brought together high-level speakers from the Pacific and Caribbean regions to encourage governments to strengthen their legal frameworks to enable them to respond and coordinate more effectively when disasters strike. The chances of SIDS requiring international assistance in the aftermath of an international disaster is very high. Many are small, isolated states, susceptible to climate change, sea level rise and natural and environmental disasters and with limited capacities.
“Time and again we have seen how the chaotic atmosphere after a disaster can result in poor quality, poor coordination and poor accountability in aid delivery,” Chapagain said. “Without the right legal instruments to deal with disaster response, authorities can be overwhelmed by relief operations and vital aid can be delayed from reaching the people who need it most.”
The IFRC developed Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance (IDRL Guidelines) to help states address common regulatory barriers to international assistance. The Samoa Red Cross Society is working with the Government of Samoa to address existing gaps in domestic law, rules and procedures and help define clear roles and responsibilities for local humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross.
“We also learned from our experience of the 2009 tsunami,” explained Namulauulu Tautala Mauala, Secretary General of the Samoa Red Cross Society. “Despite generosity from people around the world, we received 20 containers of used winter clothes and shoes that simply couldn’t be used in Samoa.”
Sune Gudnitz, head of UN OCHA’s Pacific Office, stressed how IDRL is a key factor in making disaster response more effective and well-coordinated. “800 international organisations arrived to help after the 2010 Haiti earthquake but we still haven’t learned the lesson that without tight coordination you don’t have the information you need to respond effectively. There is still a tendency by the international community to arrive in a country after a disaster and say ‘we know better’ – this is dangerous.”
Gunitz also highlighted the need for a ‘whole Government approach’ in disaster preparedness and response and touched on a common dilemma that arises in many emergency situations. “When disaster strikes, the affected government often becomes assertive and wants to lead the response but lacks the capacity. At the same time international responders get frustrated – they lack an understanding of the context they are operating in,” he said.
In 2013, the Association of Caribbean States recognised the importance of strong legal frameworks for the timely and effective delivery of international relief and committed to strengthen disaster management cooperation in the region. Earlier this year, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) and IFRC signed a memorandum of understanding setting out their cooperation to ensure continued momentum in the implementation of the IDRL Guidelines in the Pacific.
Speaking at the conference, Andy Fong Toy, deputy secretary general of PIFS cautioned the need to translate laws and policies into action. “Changing laws and policies is more than a technical exercise; it needs to be supported by capacity and resources to make them operational,” she said.