SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 20 of 79 « Previous | Next »

Disaster Standards Needed in Asia

The growing number and severity of natural disasters, especially in Asia, make it timely for governments to take a hard look at how to improve their national response. Just as there are scales for measuring the intensity of earthquakes and other disasters so should there be performance standards for measuring how governments respond. Without them, states are prone to improvise with little or no attention to the steps that might best address or mitigate disasters. Regional and international organizations may find themselves with limited or no entry and survivors have no accepted monitoring tool by which to hold their governments accountable.

The recent earthquake in China, the cyclone in Burma, and the slow onset famine in North Korea have all brought to the fore the absence of agreed upon standards in Asia for dealing with these crises. China has received much praise for its reaction to the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province, in which more than 80,000 people perished. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon complimented its government for “extraordinary leadership” and “strenuous efforts.” To his credit, Prime Minster Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene, coordinated rescue operations and mobilized more than 100,000 troops and volunteers. The government also allowed a vigorous flow of information about the damage rather than seeking to hide the disaster as it had done in the past. But there was more to the story than that.

  • Because schools for ordinary students were not built with the same high quality materials that were used for schools for children of the elite and for government buildings, 7,000 of the schools with students from the lower classes collapsed and an estimated 10,000 students and teachers died. Disaster preparedness did not seem to apply to the children of migrant workers and poor families. As the Chinese parent of one dead child commented, “this is not a natural disaster.”[1]

  • Nor did all Chinese troops and local volunteers have the skills and equipment required to pull people from the rubble expertly and rapidly. Yet the Chinese government barred from Sichuan province most rescue workers from Western countries who had such skills. It was 3 to 6 days following the quake before some 200 search-and-rescue experts from “neighboring” countries were brought in, but restrictions remained on most Western personnel who could not be “accommodated.” It will not be known how many people could have been saved if national pride had not prevented most non-Asian rescue workers from being given rapid access.

  • The stockpiling of materials and equipment came up far short. At least 700,000 tents had to be ordered from local manufacturers on the spot and another 3.3 million procured from abroad given the 4 million homes that had been destroyed and the 10 to 15 million people made homeless. Nor did China have on hand much of the machinery needed, such as earthmoving equipment, power tools, cranes, mechanized hammers, and satellite communication technology.

  • The government moved quickly to announce that it would evacuate large numbers from aftershocks, landslides and potential flooding, build temporary homes, and provide food and basic supplies. But it wasn’t clear that there were standards guiding these actions or that a government policy existed for addressing issues such as compensation, ID cards and documentation, protecting vulnerable groups such as orphans, the disabled and the elderly, or rebuilding lives and livelihoods. Moreover, there are at least one million Tibetans living in Sichuan province. Given China’s recent crackdown in Tibet, the extent to which Tibetan survivors in Sichuan and the many rural poor are dealt with equitably will bear watching.

In Burma, a handbook of what not to do in disasters could have been written based on the military junta’s reaction to the devastating cyclone and flood that struck May 2-3. A large number of the more than 100,000 Burmese who perished were clearly preventable deaths. Not only did the government fail to provide adequate early warning of the severity of the cyclone, but it provided minimal aid of its own to the victims, delayed and obstructed the delivery of international aid, especially to the hard hit Irrawaddy Delta (Burma’s rice bowl), refused to allow Western naval vessels to deliver aid even though many affected communities were accessible only by air and sea, and for almost a month restricted the entry or movement of most relief workers, in particular non-Asians who sought to bring in supplies. Even now, five weeks after the disaster, many relief workers still can not reach at least 1.1 million Burmese reported by the UN to be in desperate need of food, clean water, shelter and medical care, while those already reached received only minimal aid. The UN Secretary-General, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an array of Asian and Western governments have had to resort to private diplomacy, public statements, and the ‘carrot’ of recovery aid to try (with only marginal success) to persuade head of state General Than Shwe to cooperate with the international community.

The Burmese government’s wariness of Western relief workers raises a critical problem for humanitarian aid efforts -- whether it is acceptable for governments to exclude disaster relief and/or relief workers on political grounds when they are desperately needed. To be sure Burma’s junta was at odds with the West for its support of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and its sanctions. But international humanitarian principles make clear that governments that reject aid deliveries when they are unable to provide the required assistance are acting arbitrarily. The junta’s suspiciousness and politicizing of emergency aid cost thousands their lives. And Burma was not alone in this. Both China and India (while accepting international aid) have also barred non-Asian humanitarian workers from their countries in times of disaster even though their experience could have helped save lives. Part of their reaction can be explained by colonial history, but a new-found nationalism in Asia, especially in China, must also be noted.

Largely at China’s behest, the UN Security Council did not demand humanitarian access to Burma’s survivors or consider invoking the responsibility to protect (R2P)[2] on the grounds that the disaster was an “internal” matter. Yet China has also made known that it benefited from international aid in Sichuan, which may help move it away from its long-held position that “No one should interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign State in the name of humanitarian assistance.”[3] Asian NGOs such as Forum Asia have challenged this view, calling on Asia’s governments to stop shielding Burma from its obligation to collaborate with the international community.

ASEAN to its credit did press the Burmese government to accept Western aid (“We are prying open. Step by step,” said Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan),[4] and with the UN is undertaking needs assessment missions and coordinating international aid. But its successes have only been partial and have come after considerable delay. ASEAN’s advocacy, moreover, has not extended to protection of the rights of survivors. It has not challenged the eviction of displaced Burmese from their temporary shelters or protested their being pushed back into ruined villages without supplies. Nor has it called for inquiries into aid distributions on the basis of political loyalties in certain villages or sought to prevent the forcible recruitment of orphaned or separated children into the military.

The need for standards to offset discriminatory food distributions in North Korea has preoccupied the international community for years. From 1994 to 2000 one to two million North Koreans reportedly died from starvation and related diseases. Yet foreign NGOs who managed to gain limited access came up against so many restrictions that several leading organizations walked out because they could not ensure that food was reaching the needy. Although by 2002 the World Food Program (WFP) claimed that its access to hungry North Koreans was increasing and that aid was trickling down, the extent to which food aid was being diverted to North Korea’s military, police, and communist elite was not really known. No independent monitoring was allowed. Kim Jong Il’s government insisted that WFP visits be supervised, and it prohibited WFP staff from making random spot checks or bringing in Korean speaking staff. Nor could they visit all affected counties or even farmers’ markets to find out if donated food was being sold on the black market.

With famine again looming in North Korea, various ideas for food distribution have surfaced. One is for all donors (especially China and South Korea) to channel their food aid through the World Food Program rather than the government and then jointly negotiate with North Korea for expanded access. Another is for donors to donate protein biscuits, barley and millet, as recommended by Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, since these products would more likely reach the poor than rice, which the elite and the army prefer. It has also been suggested that donors specifically direct their aid to areas where there is known hunger, such as the northeast.

In May, the United States announced a donation of 500,000 metric tons of food to North Korea which as before would go through the WFP and American NGOs, but this time it said that North Korea would allow relief workers to conduct random on-site inspections and would approve visas for Korean-speaking aid workers. Whether these steps will be effectively implemented and whether relief workers will be given unhindered access to all affected counties remains anyone’s guess. In the past China’s and South Korea’s willingness to provide aid without conditions undercut any efforts to achieve effective monitoring (although South Korea’s policy is now changing). The U.S., for its part, has often used food aid as leverage in its nuclear weapons talks with North Korea. Whether it can be counted upon to insist on strict monitoring if progress is achieved on the nuclear front remains to be seen.

Some standards needed

Asia’s recent disasters have brought to light the absence of internationally agreed upon standards for assisting and protecting survivors and measuring government response. To be sure, an increasing number of governments around the world, including in Asia, have adopted laws and policies for dealing with disaster preparedness, and in 2005 ASEAN produced an agreement on disaster management and emergency assistance (albeit not yet in force). But they do not adequately cover some of the most serious problems that have arisen.

The following is offered as a checklist of some of the main issues requiring attention for effective disaster management, both by affected governments and by international donors.

  1. First, it needs to be acknowledged that disaster preparedness, in particular preventing or mitigating the conditions that lead to disasters, is not only the responsibility of governments but the fundamental right of disaster victims. Not only must governments make a firm commitment to reinforcing buildings in areas known to be disaster prone but must make accountability part of the response when things go wrong. Handing out compensation to families for losing children in shoddy structures is hardly a sufficient response to an earthquake -- as China is quickly learning. Nor is the failure to erect dikes and barriers to reduce flooding in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta. While building disaster resistant structures is more expensive, taking the trouble to do so reduces disaster intervention costs later on. Foreign aid and international bank loans should be made available so that governments can readily take such measures.

  1. The stockpiling of materials is essential, as are adequate mechanisms for early warning. Advance warnings must be effectively broadcast (they were not in Burma) and heeded (they were not in China, according to Chinese scientists) while help must be provided in evacuating people who are unable to leave on their own.

  1. Governments that do not have the capacity fully to protect and assist their populations must immediately call for assistance from all parties, irrespective of nationality and politics. Just as donors should “know no politics” in providing humanitarian aid, recipient governments should know no politics in requesting and receiving it. The many skilled foreign aid workers made to sit for weeks in Bangkok and Yangon barred from reaching the Irrawaddy Delta should become the poster child of how not to respond to disasters. The fundamental right of survivors to humanitarian and reconstruction assistance when their governments are unable to provide it should override arbitrary rejections of aid disguised as the prerogatives of sovereignty.

  1. Regional and international organizations should be expected to step in when governments are unable to fulfill their obligations and are unwilling to accept foreign help. In Africa, a 2006 legally binding agreement in the Great Lakes region provides that governments without the capacity to protect and assist people uprooted by disaster “shall accept and respect the obligation of the organs of the international community to provide protection and assistance” (emphasis added).[5]

  1. Distributing aid on the basis of political opinion, political loyalty, social status, ethnic origin, race or religion should be prohibited and review processes established to hear complaints and ensure remedial action. This is in the interests both of victims and governments since discriminatory aid practices make donors less likely to contribute, or to offer reconstruction aid, as both Burma and North Korea have found out.

  1. Donors should be encouraged to contribute their aid to international organizations, NGOs and local groups, rather than exclusively to governments, particularly where transparency and accountability are problems, as in North Korea and Burma. Independent monitoring systems to check on the distribution of food and supplies should be part of emergency and reconstruction aid. Dispensing with monitoring, as donors sometimes do, often leads to later exposure that aid did not reach the needy but helped shore up repressive regimes.

  1. Survivors have protection needs beyond the provision of food, medicine and shelter. People displaced by disasters must be protected from violence in camps, forcible expulsions and returns, child recruitment, and receive assistance in obtaining lost documentation and just mechanisms for property claims and compensation. Valuable guidelines already exist that identify the human rights and protection needs of people uprooted by disasters.[6] They can form the basis for international performance standards.

While an officially agreed list of international standards would be difficult to negotiate and might not be regularly observed, it is needed both as a guide to governments that do wish to do the right thing in responding to disasters and as a basis for the international community to measure performance. And it could have the added benefit of leading to civic empowerment that could have a broader impact. As a Burmese survivor whispered to a journalist, “We don’t even know that the government has a duty to protect its people.”[7] Yet knowing one’s rights is the first step toward accountability in times of disaster.



[1] “Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled,” New York Times, May 25, 2008.

[2] The World Summit Outcome document of 2005 endorsed a collective responsibility to protect through the Security Council when governments fail to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Burma’s systematic neglect of its population during and after the cyclone could well constitute a crime against humanity.

[3] UN Security Council Press Release, SC/8818, 14 March 2000.

[4] Seth Mydans, “A Few Aid Workers Reach Into Myanmar,” New York Times, May 28, 2008.

[5] Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, 30 November 2006.

[6] See Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53,Add.2, 1998; UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006; Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Regional Office for the Pacific and UNDP Pacific Centre, “Checklists for Integrating Human Rights in Natural Disaster Management in the Pacific,” 2007; and Guidelines on the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2007.

[7] “Myanmar Junta Begins Evicting Cyclone Victims From Shelters.” New York Times, June 7, 2008.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 20