Humanitarian Disasters

– in the House of Commons at 10:05 pm on 8th March 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 10:06 pm, 8th March 2011

Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for selecting this subject for debate, and to have not only the Minister who will respond to the debate but the Secretary of State in the Chamber.

The number of people affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, cyclones, famines and so on, is set to increase hugely over the coming years. Crucially, the international community’s ability to respond needs to continue to improve too. I sought this debate because I worry that the trend is in the wrong direction. Oxfam, in its evidence to the Minister’s humanitarian response review, noted that the international humanitarian system risks no longer being a cohesive global system, and that its effectiveness is at risk just when it should be increasing. It called for renewed political leadership by the UK and other major donors to ensure adequate UN humanitarian leadership. World Vision has also highlighted the need for stronger humanitarian leadership.

Britain is one of the many nations that contribute to UN appeals responding to disasters, but it is one of a far smaller number of nations genuinely interested in driving reform across the UN development and humanitarian system and willing to put in the hard yards in international forums to champion that reform. I recognise that the Government have not yet completed their humanitarian emergency response review. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will feel able to provide a full response, and I ask him directly what he and his Department are doing to ensure that the UN can lead the immediate humanitarian response to natural disasters effectively.

How often have Ministers initiated discussions with EU colleagues, the US and other countries on the UN’s ability to respond to disasters? I have no doubt that there is plenty of contact when a disaster strikes, but it is between times that leadership from Department for International Development Ministers—and, indeed, Ministers from across the Government—continues to be required. Essentially, there are five issues of continuing concern involved in how the UN leads the international humanitarian system: funding, personnel, co-ordination, reporting and disaster risk reduction. In the medium and longer term, there is also a second group of issues associated with how the broader UN development system responds to the challenge of development after the immediate humanitarian response phase of a disaster is over.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration, and that of the general public, over the Haiti disaster? Clearly the general public wanted something done, the money was gathered and the UN responded, yet a year or 15 months later, the work that we expected to see in Haiti has not been done. Does he share that frustration with me and others in the Chamber?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

There are many reasons why the international community has not met the scale of the task in Haiti. Certainly, there were issues with the UN’s response, which demonstrated the continuing need for reform, but Haiti’s long-term poverty and instability have also been factors.

Nevertheless, what happened in Haiti is one reason why approximately 263 million people were devastated by natural disasters in 2010—110 million more than in the year of the tsunami. Experts predict that by 2015, some 375 million people will be affected as climate change increases the risk of natural disasters, the vast majority of them living on less than $1 a day. Many will also be affected by conflict, but although the needs of people affected by conflict and the agencies involved in responding can both be similar, in this debate I want to focus on purely natural disasters.

I am an unashamed fan of the amazing British development NGOs that respond to disasters. I have had many times the honour and privilege of seeing or hearing about the courage, compassion and skill of those working for CAFOD––the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief, ActionAid, Christian Aid or one of the many, many other NGOs in responding to disasters. However, it is the UN that has to lead the international response to major disasters, and it is on the UN’s capacity to provide leadership that I want to focus.

The expansion of the Central Emergency Response Fund to allow the UN to release funds and enable its agencies to react to disasters more quickly has been an undoubted success over the past five years, helping to improve the UN’s leadership in major disasters and, crucially, in the under-reported and forgotten humanitarian crises that no longer attract media attention, if they ever did. My concern about CERF now is how well it is funded. At the end of last year there were reports that CERF—the UN’s primary fund—was facing a $100 million shortfall. At the replenishment conference in December—I gently point out that no Minister attended it, which was unusual and disappointing—only $358 million was raised. Indeed, I was struck by the continuing poor contribution by key nations in the UN family, and in particular by how little the US and France contributed to support the UN’s ability to respond.

In 2010 Britain contributed some $60 million to the Central Emergency Response Fund and $113 million collectively to the three UN humanitarian leadership funds. That compares with the US, which gave only $10 million—just over £6 million—to CERF, and the French, who gave a combined total of just $7.4 million: that is less than £5 million. In better times, when the contributions of other nations were higher and CERF was expanding, that was not such a problem, but with aid levels under threat—albeit not in this country—now is surely the time for the richest nations to continue to meet their responsibilities to those funds. Interestingly, Valerie Amos, Britain’s most senior UN diplomat and head of the UN’s disaster response agency, said in New York as recently as 21 January:

“we…need to broaden the coalition of Member States who support multilateral humanitarian action, and we need to bring more partners into our existing response mechanisms”.

What discussions has the Minister or his departmental colleagues had, or are they planning, with their US and French counterparts on funding for the UN’s humanitarian funds?

The next issue is about people. Leading the response to a disaster requires remarkable leadership, and the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinators are the unsung heroes of the international community. They are often required to be personally brave, and they need a capacity for punishing hours, day after day with little rest, and an ability to negotiate and co-ordinate with country Governments, donors and aid agencies, and often the military and myriad other bodies. The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinators are, as it were, the Florence Nightingales of the international community; they are also, however, too few in number. I hope that the Minister will say what action the Department for International Development is taking to help the UN find and support a wider pool of people from which to draw humanitarian co-ordinators.

Also crucial are those who lead the work to provide each part of the humanitarian effort—the effort to provide shelter, water supplies, medical assistance, and so on—and specifically those UN agencies that have accepted responsibility for each of those tasks and that have struggled on occasion to find the right person, appropriately trained and able to be deployed at a moment’s notice, to be that agency’s leadership on the ground when a disaster strikes. So I ask the Minister what continuing discussions he is having with agencies with cluster leadership responsibilities about the availability of sufficient senior staff who can be deployed at a moment’s notice.

The single biggest factor in getting agencies and non-governmental organisations to work together, to co-ordinate effectively and to ensure that all the key humanitarian needs are addressed is the availability of funding. Common humanitarian funds in-country have helped to drive better co-ordination in a number of situations. Sudan is an example. Will the Minister tell me how those funds are continuing to be rolled out? What is his assessment of their effectiveness?

Disaster risk reduction and the development of local in-country ability to respond to disasters is also essential. As Save the Children has noted, the contrast between the impact of the Christchurch earthquake and the Haiti quake is instructive. It is not impossible to predict where there might be a risk of big natural disasters occurring, and UN agencies need to help to build the ability of countries and communities to put in place measures such as tsunami early-warning systems and better building regulations, to ensure that such events lead to less damage and fewer lives being lost. Indeed, the Disasters Emergency Committee has just noted the need to prepare for the—sadly inevitable—next big urban disasters. That point is linked to the question that Jim Shannon has just asked me. Again, I ask the Minister what action he is taking to promote disaster risk reduction efforts by the individual developing countries in which we continue to have an aid programme and by the UN agencies that we are continuing to fund.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

In my experience, the United Kingdom has done extremely well in providing humanitarian aid; it is entirely supportive. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we are not pulling our weight, and should be doing considerably more?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of where we are—or certainly of where we have been. My point is that, with the shortfall in funding for the crucial

UN humanitarian funds, we need to step up our efforts to persuade other countries to share our interest in and responsibility for the UN humanitarian system.

Linked to the hon. Gentleman’s point, may I ask the Minister how he and his Department are encouraging debate about the issues that take centre stage in these discussions? Is an annual international forum being planned to bring Ministers together from across the globe to discuss how humanitarian issues are being—and, indeed, have been—handled? Such gatherings exist for officials, but is there one planned for Ministers? Ultimately, it is ministerial energy that shifts, or does not shift, the international system’s gears.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Conservative, Calder Valley

I spent the recess in New Zealand working with the Parliament there, and I was there when the earthquake struck in Christchurch. The New Zealand people were incredibly grateful for the immediate response not only from our own country but from such countries as Singapore, Australia, Japan and, of course, America. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the UN effort, but does he agree that there is already a co-ordinated response that kicks in when many such humanitarian disasters occur?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s words and his interest in the New Zealand situation, but I do not share his analysis of the general situation in many developing countries. I emphasise the contrast between New Zealand and elsewhere. The lessons from Haiti are quite instructive in that regard, because New Zealand had far more advanced contingency planning and systems in place, notwithstanding the challenges that still exist. It is for that reason that we need the UN, and the international humanitarian system that it leads, to continue to be effective and, given the increase in need that we are likely to see in the coming years, to continue to reform so that it can improve its work still further.

I return to the issue of the international forum. If the Minister does not have a plan to establish such a forum for ministerial discussions, will he at least ensure that this is a topic for an EU Development Ministers meeting? The Disasters Emergency Committee, that excellent co-ordinating body of non-governmental organisations in the UK, has just published a lessons learned document from the Haiti disaster. I gently suggest that such work needs to be considered and replicated in an international setting at a ministerial level meeting.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. One concern of many people is that when money is donated to help countries, there is an administrative angle to it. How much of that money actually gets through to the people? Is it effectively sucked up in the administration so that the money does not go where people want it to go?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

A lot of the money pledged to the UN does get through to the sharp end, but that does not mean that there is no scope for improving the savings that can be found across the UN system.

The second broad issue I want quickly to raise is the reform of the UN development system and how UN agencies can be supported to step up their longer-term response to natural disasters. The Government need to champion a joined-up UN response and to celebrate the One UN reform programme that is helping in some countries to ensure that the sheer plethora of UN agencies’ funds, programmes and commissions add up to more than the sum of their parts. Again, leadership money and co-ordination are fundamental, so I ask the Minister what support he is giving through his Department to help to widen the pool of experience of dedicated UN resident co-ordinators able to lead that collective, co-ordinated UN development response. What resources are the Government putting in to One UN funds that force agencies to work together to deliver the prioritised response that countries need?

In our more financially difficult times, and given what the hon. Member for Strangford asked, what action is the Minister taking to encourage the UN to drive savings? For example, does every UN agency continue to need its own procurement or human resources function, as savings could be reinvested in the front line of the development and humanitarian effort?

Lastly, the World Bank is a distinct and different part of the UN family, but it is part of that family, too. It could do more, more quickly, to help countries to plan their response to disasters and could certainly do more to help disaster risk reduction work and assist countries to pre-plan their response to a disaster. The World Bank remains, however, far too Washington-focused. More of its staff with more devolved power need to be based in the developing countries that they are seeking to help. I would welcome hearing whether the Minister shares that view.

The UN is a remarkable group of organisations with remarkable people in key parts of the humanitarian and development systems doing a very important job and doing it well, but to be ready for the challenges of rising numbers of people being affected by natural disasters, it needs to continue to reform. It will do so only with the help of constructive and critical friends such as the UK. The UK, in turn, will be that consistent and constructively critical friend only if Ministers continue to take a profound and abiding interest in the two issues of UN humanitarian system and UN development system reform. I recognise that the Minister must reach his own judgment on the different elements of those reform agendas, but I hope he is interested enough to want to reach such a judgment.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 10:23 pm, 8th March 2011

I thank Mr Thomas for raising this very important and timely issue. He has ministerial experience in the Department on which he has been able to build relevant knowledge. He is right to say that, in 2010, 263 million people were devastated by natural disasters—110 million more, as he said, than by the tsunami of 2004. Experts predict that the number of floods, famines and other climate-related disasters could increase to affect 375 million people every year by 2015.

Meeting global humanitarian need is a top priority for the UK coalition Government, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International

Development set in train an independent review of the UK Government’s response to rapid onset emergencies, so we can learn how to do this better.

May I take the opportunity to touch on the current hot spot? We are, of course, responding to the humanitarian situation in Libya and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was only last week at the Tunisian border, where he witnessed the complex situation first hand. He vowed that the UK would do everything possible to give the stranded shelter and to get them home as quickly as possible. It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that DFID was one of the first donors on the ground, responding quickly by placing experts on the borders to assess the situation. We immediately sent 38,000 blankets and 1,400 tents from DFID’s stores to provide shelter for 10,000 people.

It was quickly established that at that point the situation on the borders was a logistical emergency rather than a humanitarian crisis. We sent chartered flights to take the returning migrant workers home, and yesterday the last of those flights was returning more than 500 Bangladeshis. We have also returned more than 6,000 Egyptians. That, along with the logistics experts that we have deployed to the airport, has significantly relieved the situation on the Tunisian border.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, however, the United Kingdom cannot address these grave issues alone. We must work as part of an international system. I was pleased to note yesterday that Baroness Amos, the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator, had launched a flash appeal for Libya. It sets out the immediate needs of the affected population, and provides the all-important framework that donors and humanitarian agencies need in order to co-ordinate their efforts. It will also help to ensure that our international support always targets those who are most in need with the most appropriate support, doing no harm and respecting people’s dignity.

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set up an independent humanitarian emergency response review, and my noble Friend Lord Ashdown will provide his assessment of it in the coming weeks. The review will consider how the United Kingdom can improve its effectiveness and prepare for the challenges of the 21st century. The hon. Gentleman himself said that he did not expect me to anticipate its outcome, but I can put on record that its recommendations will involve seven key lines of inquiry. They relate to the impact of UK humanitarian assistance; what an effective humanitarian response from the UK should look like; how the UK should support partners to deliver an effective response—a crucial point raised by the hon. Gentleman; how the UK can be an effective member of the international response community—another point that he raised; and how the UK should address the issue of accountability in humanitarian response. The review will also recommend an assessment of DFID’s humanitarian policy, and urge the UK to ensure that the Department is “fit for purpose” in the context of 21st-century humanitarian challenges. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to debate the review’s findings when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is able to set out his recommendations for future UK policy and action.

In view of the priority that we place on improving the effectiveness of the international system, the Secretary of State also commissioned a multilateral aid review.

A statement on the review was made in the House on 1 March, so I need not go into the details, but it is worth noting that it showed most—although not all—humanitarian agencies to be good performers providing good value for money. The reviews have identified key priorities for reform. We want to work with the agencies to ensure that the international response becomes better and the hard-pressed UK taxpayer receives value for money for every UK pound that is spent.

The reaction around the world since the announcement of the reviews from many Governments, donors and partners alike, and indeed from various international agencies—non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, analysts and commentators—has been one of great interest in the process in which the international development team has been involved, not least in regard to the multilateral aid review. I hope that—partly in response to the hon. Gentleman’s encouragement—the review will be seen as both a template and a pathfinder, and that the process will be taken up not just by individual countries but by the United Nations itself and its various agencies at all levels. We will try to ensure that that happens.

Notwithstanding earlier observations by a couple of Members about recent disasters in Haiti and Pakistan, I thought it might be helpful if, rather than dwelling on those disasters, I mentioned some of the lessons that have been learned. It is important that the innovations that can be brought to bear be understood. The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has established itself as pivotal in leading and co-ordinating the humanitarian response. It has strengthened the system of humanitarian co-ordinators in-country and the establishment of the UN cluster approach, as well as ensuring that humanitarian needs are met through joint assessments and that the finances are available to resource humanitarian action, all of which are crucial components of our modern toolkit.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

At the same time as the Minister’s Department was releasing details of its funding for the CERF conference, which I welcome, it briefed that CERF faced a shortfall of $100 million for the current financial year. Will the Minister therefore write to the US and France asking them to contribute more funds to CERF?

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I was about to come on to CERF, but may I first make sure that I confirm the point that through the appeals process not only are we becoming better at preventing the duplication of effort and improving value for money from a response, but we are much more focused on the evidence-based and results-based management that will help to improve that further? The UK is pressing this point on almost a daily basis, and various contacts and discussions have taken place.

When in opposition, we fully supported the establishment of CERF when that was introduced by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the then Secretary of State. It was an innovation that improved UN country leadership and co-ordination, and resulted in a more timely and equitable humanitarian response according to needs. Since it was set up, the UK has been one of its top donors, and it recently did well in the multilateral aid review. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has authorised a doubling of the UK’s support to CERF, announcing in December a £40 million pledge to this year’s appeal for funds to it. We are recognised as leading by example, and I am very pleased that CERF is already swiftly providing financial support to the people of Libya.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, a considerable number of meetings are taking place with our various US opposite numbers and the French. I noted what he said about an annual international forum. That seems to me to be too infrequent. There is also the question whether there should be a similar forum for the EU. Rather than a set-piece meeting, there are frequent ongoing meetings. Indeed, I was in Paris on Thursday and took the opportunity to raise these points through a series of bilaterals.

It is important to recognise that we need not just to reduce the risks associated with disasters when they happen, but to have much better co-ordination on identifying and preventing risks before they happen, while also recognising the general unpredictability. Working through the bilateral aid review, and therefore now the country programmes, that type of resilience and preparation has been put in place, and it is, I think, fair to call into evidence what we have already done in the preparations in respect of southern Sudan.

While, as ever, there will be calls for a total review of the international system, we already have enough evidence and experience to know broadly what the problems are. The lessons from Pakistan and Haiti led to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declaring improved response to major crises as one of the top eight UN priorities for 2011. Through international forums and the EU, we are having a series of discussions intended not only to back up what the UN may be discussing, but to make sure that on those bilateral and regional bases there is a continuing set of discussions and a focus that will ensure that we not only learn lessons but construct our ability to respond most effectively. The new mechanisms established five years ago are starting to result in improved responses, but they need to continue to improve, particularly in terms of leadership.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I am running out of time I am afraid, but I will give way at the end of my speech if there is a moment left.

While talking of leadership, I want to highlight the UK Government’s appreciation of, and support for, the vital role being played by Baroness Amos. She has brought fresh thinking, determination and passion to humanitarian response, which is improving the effectiveness of the international system.

Lastly, I wish to highlight the fact that the current traditional international system alone cannot be the only response to humanitarian disasters, and it is crucial to bring both emerging powers and the private sector on board. The UK will continue to learn and to be at the forefront of good humanitarian donorship. I believe that I have half a minute left, so perhaps I can give way now.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

One of the real problems I see is not just in UN leadership, but the co-ordination of the other non-governmental organisations in the field. Presumably, the Minister is looking at that too.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

Unquestionably we are looking at all the various actors and players—NGOs, civil society organisations and, above all, the agencies, which are ultimately the big donors that have the muscle to bring this to bear—and international co-ordination is crucial. I know that the direction that will be given to us by Lord Ashdown’s review will only serve to continue to keep the United Kingdom at the forefront.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.