A. Causes and consequences of disasters

The history and structure of the International Red Cross and Crescent Movement and the mandates of its different components provide it with a unique vantage point from which to view the rapid changes that have affected humanitarian actions over the past decade. This perspective allows it to focus on some of the key dilemmas in humanitarian response and to examine how these affect the Movement's work now and in the future.

Disaster vulnerability is on the increase, not because there are more floods or earthquakes than ten years ago but because more people are being affected by these natural phenomena and many more of today's disasters involve " manmade " causes: war, economic collapse, human rights abuses, and the increased reliance on technology. Of those affected, a greater proportion than ever before are unable to recover unaided. Without even including war victims, an estimated 250 to 300 million people a year[1 ] are affected by disasters, a figure growing by around 10 million a year. In addition, most of the estimated 26 million internally displaced persons in the world are fleeing from war.[2 ]

The causes and consequences of disasters are becoming more complex. Almost all the famines in Africa in the past decade have involved civil wars as well as drought. In the Caucasus and the Balkans economic collapse, war and harsh climatic conditions are causing massive suffering to hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons.

Violence, from b anditry to all-out war is on the increase. The power of a cheap automatic rifle is one of the most potent factors shaping many people's lives today. In parallel, there has been a steady increase in the incidence of armed conflict, especially internal conflict. Armed conflicts have taken place or are still occurring in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Liberia in the South and in former Yugoslavia and parts of the former Soviet Union in the North. Today there are more than 31 wars ongoing.[3 ]  In 1993, the last year for which reliable figures are available, a quarter of a million people were killed directly by war and 95% of today's war victims are civilians. 

War victims and refugees often fleeing from war and violence are now the most common recipients of humanitarian assistance. Today there are 23 million refugees,[4 ] 26 million people internally displaced and 100 million economic migrants. In 1990 assistance programmes to refugees and displaced persons accounted for 23% of the International Federation's work. Last year the figure was 67%. ICRC's budget, mainly devoted to victims of armed conflicts and internal violence has grown steadily throughout the last years. This surge in population movement is unlikely to die down. Environmental decline - with or without global warming - food insecurity, increased violence and the weakened role of the State all combine to make it highly probable that mass migration will be a constant feature of world economics and politics for the foreseeable future.

The needs of victims are growing larger and more intractable at a time of great political and social change, when the traditional mechanisms of state and interstate bodies are undergoing radical change.

 Humanitarian Action  

Funding for international humanitarian response is higher than it has ever been, but this growth is at a cost. In 1994 donor countries invested over 3,400 million dollars in disaster relief, excluding food aid, more than 10 times the figure of a decade before. This is at a time when official Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is not growing (55.9 thousand million US$ in 1993), indeed may be faltering. The proportion of it going on emergency programmes is climbing fast and has already reached 7%.[5 ]  

This rapid increase in humanitarian funding has been accompanied by an equally rapid increase in the number of organisations offering assistance. International humanitarian assistance is now one of the most unregulated markets in the world. And yet it is a market which literally deals in life and death issues for millions of people. In view of the magnitude of existing needs and the growing number of humanitarian players, co-ordination of humanitarian assistance remains indispensable.

Fortunately, emergency situations often trigger common-sense reflexes which naturally lead, especially in the field, to tangible efforts to avoid wasting energy. But competition among various agencies and organisations, the lack of expertise of some new non-governmental organisations whose good will is not in question all constitute obstacles to effective co-ordination that must be overcome.

In addition the concentration of humanitarian agencies in a few theatres of operation, while other situations are neglected, and their simultaneous withdrawal without any provisions having been made for the transition to rehabilitatio n and development are two critical weaknesses in disaster response today.

By working towards a clarification of roles and improved mutual understanding through a systematic process of consultation, it should be possible to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian action in terms of both quality and quantity. This is necessary not only to avoid duplication of effort, but also to enable each agency involved to discharge its own specific expertise. Existing consultation mechanisms are useful in this respect and could be developed further.

The International Federation and the ICRC intend to pursue the on-going co-operation with the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee while at the same time preserving the separate identity of the components of the Movement, in a spirit of constructive complementarity.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC, the International Federation and the whole network of National Societies as independent and impartial humanitarian organisations are ready to play a leading role in facing the increased needs of disaster victims. Likewise, the Movement has a duty to take a lead in advocating for and setting appropriately professional standards of assistance, which it believes are a necessary prerequisite for agency neutrality and impartiality, both essential to the credibility of humanitarian action.

 Notes  

1. Source: Centre for Research into the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), Brussels, Belgium ,1994.

2. US Committee for Refugees, Washington DC, USA, 1994

3. Source: SIPRI year book 1994. Stockholm, Sweden.

4. Source: UNHCR " At a glance " information note. Geneva, 1995.

5. Source: DAC, OECD, Paris, France, 1994