NEW YORK — One of the greatest challenges facing governments and international aid agencies today is how to respond better to humanitarian disasters.

A just released U.S. State Department internal report entitled “Lessons Learned from Humanitarian Interven- tions Abroad” provides some important insights into the shortcoming of previous intervention efforts and ways to avoid them.

The directors of the study are Morton Halperin, head of the policy planning staff at the State Department and James Michel, counselor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The report analyzes how Washington responded to the armed conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as to a natural disaster, Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Although the report finds many positive aspects of the U.S. response, it also finds some significant mistakes, which should be corrected to improve the possibility of alleviating the consequences of those disasters. The report has been widely criticized inside the State Department because of its blunt language and because critics have mainly focused on the negative comments from the report.

Among the main drawbacks to effective aid the study found are poor coordination among different agencies within the U.S. government, which leads to frequent duplication of tasks. Another factor is the lack of information inside the administration and nongovernmental humanitarian aid groups, which many times do not know the most appropriate agency to work with. In the case of Hurricane Mitch, confusion over which part of the government was responsible for aid to the stricken countries provoked delays in assessing the damage and sending aid to Central America.

One example of poor coordination cited in the report is the split between the State Department and USAID’s civilian emergency programs, which has hindered effectiveness on humanitarian matters and complicated responses to humanitarian emergencies. Coherent leadership is particularly needed now, when the number of complex emergencies has trebled, and their magnitude and costs have increased substantially.

In addition, the nature of warfare has changed. Presently, humanitarian crises stem mainly from internal ethnic conflicts that generate massive flows of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs are now estimated at over 20 million). While international law governing the treatment of refugees remains in force, no legal body has yet been developed for IDPs.

The report concludes that the most significant impediment to humanitarian effective response is the lack of unified leadership within the U.S. government.

In my experience visiting war-stricken countries as well as postdisaster areas (Mozambique, Angola, Honduras and Peru), effective response is also hindered by international donors unnecessarily competing with each other to meet the needs of an affected country.

An additional factor to take into account is that emergency international assistance should be planned so as to complement, not duplicate, national efforts. In that regard, responsibility for adequate assistance rests not only with international donors themselves, but with national authorities. They should make an early and coordinated effort at working together with international agencies and governments for the most effective implementation of policies.

Relief actions should not be limited to the emergency phase, but should also consider the rehabilitation and development processes that follow it. The idea is not only to solve the most immediate and pressing problems (medical, nutritional, safety) of the populations affected, but to create the conditions for sustained development. Discussions are under way on how humanitarian and development activities converge, and on comprehensive approaches to peace-building, relief assistance and economic and social progress. Only through such an integrated approach actions will be effective, sustainable and long lasting.

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