Humanitarian Disasters

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:23 pm on 8th March 2011.

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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.