Humanitarian Response to World Crises

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

March 15, 2006

I could start out my remarks tonight by saying that the international humanitarian response to emergencies is generous, multinational, reasonably quick, sometimes well coordinated, and overall responsible for saving many lives. Just consider the international response to the tsunami. There was immediate international humanitarian action combined with rapid military relief and rescue operations from a number of nations, the mobilization of $13.6 billion with a good percentage received, and a notable role by the UN in coordinating one of the largest relief operations in history. Indeed, UN officials often point out that as a result of its efforts, epidemics were averted, food assistance was delivered, most children are now back in school, and tens of thousands are employed and earning money again.

Yet something is missing from this picture. What is missing is that the international humanitarian response to emergencies is more likely to be unpredictable, highly fragmented, frequently inequitable and subject to the vagaries and political interests of donor governments.

For the tsunami, $13.6 billion was pledged, far more money than was actually needed, but for the earthquake in Pakistan, or the mudslides in Central America, or droughts in Africa, the international response has not been comparable. One disaster captures international donor and media attention whereas others meet with indifference, donor fatigue and scarce resources. One major reason is that donors generally put funds where they have compelling national security interests. Thus large amounts of funds can be found for Iraq and Afghanistan but when it comes to Africa, emergency needs are often under-funded. In fact, international organizations receive only about one-third of the funds they appeal for to feed and house people affected by humanitarian crises in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2005, where 1,000 people were dying every day from preventable disease and malnutrition and up to 2 million were uprooted, only 36 percent of the $175 million appealed for by the UN was received.

View complete statement.