An Information Flak Jacket

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From Afghanistan to Zaire, humanitarian disaster workers know that reliable information is the flak jacket that saves lives. Without constantly updated and accurate information about washed-out roads, land mines, disease-infested water, or outbreaks of violence, aid workers and refugees die. Especially today in Zaire, relief managers must know the location of refugees and the best routes for food and supplies.

Today this need is being met in a new way. If you visit the border of Zaire and Rwanda you may see something unexpected: an aid worker on a laptop computer downloading lifesaving information from ReliefWeb, an idea pioneered by the United States and put into action by the United Nations.

ReliefWeb is a small but vivid example of the kind of service the UN is providing in the post-cold-war era. At a time when the UN is maligned by some as a bloated and mismanaged organization, ReliefWeb is a reminder that the world organization remains an invaluable tool for governments and private agencies struggling to overcome humanitarian disasters.

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Originally designed by the State Department, ReliefWeb pulls information from the field and posts it on the Internet. It links low-tech relief operations with modern telecommunications and information-management technologies. It is fast becoming the one-stop global information center for fresh, reliable, and relevant reports, maps, and press accounts on relief operations. While some of this information is available elsewhere on the Internet, ReliefWeb filters out the chaff and provides users time-saving search tools efficiently and at low cost.

ReliefWeb uses many tools to quickly gather and disseminate information: e-mail list servers such as "South Sudan OnLine," which recently warned workers in Sudan of bombs falling in a particular region; an e-mail news service such as IRIN that provides twice-daily updates on Zaire; and a tiny network called Azerweb that connects refugee camps in Azerbaijan. Relief workers are learning that ReliefWeb is the place to go for crucial relief information that could save their own lives as well as the lives of refugees. Relief workers and interested citizens are accessing ReliefWeb more than 3,000 times an hour during peak times.

Alternative media such as CD ROMs and an experiment called REMAPS are designed to transfer even more information from the field to ReliefWeb. REMAPS allows field workers to quickly and accurately describe circumstances, such as the movement of refugees or the location of a land mine, and link the data to a map. The maps help ensure that the right amount of supplies arrive at the right spot at the right time. ReliefWeb also lists the various uses of humanitarian assistance funds., allowing citizens to learn where and to what purpose their tax dollars are being spent.

Managed by the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, ReliefWeb receives support from the US, UK, Switzerland, Austria, and Finland, as well as the European Union. It has been endorsed by relief agencies such as the World Food Program, UNHCR, and UNICEF, and by key nongovernmental organizations such as InterAction, the International Red Cross, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders. With continued support for the UN, programs such as ReliefWeb can help save even more lives.

Note: ReliefWeb's address in Europe is http://www.reliefweb.int/. In the Americas it is http://www.info/usaid.gov/ofda/reliefweb/. REMAPS can be found at http://www.state. gov/www/issues/relief/field.html. For Zaire alerts, e-mail irin@dha.unon.org. South Sudan OnLine is at http://www. state.gov/www/issues/relief/index.html.

*Princeton N. Lyman is acting assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

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