When Disaster Strikes, the UN Creaks Into Action

THE five permanent members of the Security Council have until the end of the year to select the next secretary-general of the United Nations. As they begin to screen candidates, the recent series of worldwide disasters - including the cyclone in Bangladesh, the plight of the Kurds, cholera in Latin America, earthquakes in Soviet Georgia and Costa Rica, and the looming famine in Africa - points to a critical qualification the next secretary-general must possess: the vision to reform the UN disaster-relie f system. As we are witnessing, when two or three disasters occur in different parts of the world simultaneously, the UN's relief efforts become hopelessly ineffective. Beset by problems of coordination and bureaucracy, the UN needs to seriously restructure the way it works with member states in responding to international disasters.

Why did disaster-relief officials who dealt with the 1988 Armenian earthquake act as if it was the first national disaster that had ever taken place? Why were initial relief efforts stalled for the tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites who fled from Iraq? And why did it take two long weeks to deliver desperately needed helicopters and other support material to Bangladesh?

UN relief officials and other experts are quick to point out the system's shortfalls. They include inadequate warning systems, lack of information on goods and services locally available in disaster-struck areas, poor transportation and communications infrastructures, and restrictions on the delivery of goods and the movement of relief personnel within affected nations. These points were also made in a 1971 UN report.

The overlap and competition among the four or five UN agencies that deal with disaster relief have burgeoned since 1971, weakening the system even further. Lacking reliable and authoritative information, donors often respond to calamities inappropriately.

The UN must design a system that can rapidly locate and deploy the right type and amount of relief assistance to a disaster-struck area. Throwing money at the problem will not make the system work better. Common sense, imagination, and good organization will.

Here's a proposal to save money and streamline the UN relief bureaucracy: First, integrate the four or five existing UN agencies dealing with disaster relief into one unit. Second, empower the new unit to stockpile an international inventory of basic material, equipment, medicine, and foodstuffs needed when disasters occur. Third, apportion the inventory around the world according to the national strengths and specific countries.

The US, for example, has certain strengths - heavy airlift capacity, helicopters, tents, medicine, and foodstuffs. In a coordinated plan with the UN, designated equipment and material would be stored permanently near an airbase and be on 24-hour notice. A special rapid deployment team would be standing by to start the flow of assistance.

Such a plan would be initiated in 20 other nations as well. The Germans, for instance, could make cranes available, and the Japanese, cargo ships. Such an operation would plug into the existing national emergency-response system of individual nations throughout the world.

Under such a system, when a disaster strikes, the UN would have the capability to tap into its register on the location of all necessary material and coordinate its quick deployment to the disaster-struck area.

The architects of such a system would not have to look far for a model. United Nations peacekeeping operations rely on member states for soldiers, trucks, radios, and other material. When the need arises, their personnel and equipment are dispatched quickly and efficiently to trouble spots around the world. Why not implement the same strategy for disaster relief?

With the end of the cold war, the UN has finally begun to play a significant role in world affairs. It is closer to fulfilling its promise now than ever before. Clearly, though, in order to achieve its full potential, the next UN secretary-general must offer the leadership and the ability to provide rapid and effective relief to victims of international disasters.

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