- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

More than 2,000 analysts, policy-makers, and political and community leaders are expected to attend the second World Conference on Disaster Reduction, opening tomorrow in Kobe, Japan, and running through Saturday. The meeting has attracted increased attention since the Dec. 26 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that generated a tsunami that killed more than 162,000 people, injured more than half a million, and displaced several millions in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

Special correspondent John Zarocostas of The Washington Times in Geneva interviewed Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, about the conference, which had been planned before the disaster.

Question: How has the Dec. 26 disaster changed the outlook for this week’s meeting?

Answer: The Kobe Conference has gone from being a U.N. conference where we struggled to get sufficient attention to being propelled to the center of world attention. An early-warning system, preparedness and [disaster] prevention that will be discussed there will have global attention, because nobody wants to see [such a disaster] repeated.

Q: What’s your message to policy-makers who will be attending the conference?

A: The conference will be opened by the emperor of Japan. My message on behalf of the United Nations is that prevention is better than cure; that in a world of increasing natural disasters, we can prevent increasing loss of lives and material damage among people who are already poor and disadvantaged.

At Kobe, we will bring more than 2,000 practitioners to Japan from all disaster-prone countries in the world — from Haiti to the locust-prone West African countries — and we will then discuss preparedness and prevention in a time of more disasters.

Q: One of the objectives at Kobe is to adopt a plan of action. Can you tell us what the thrust of this action program will be?

A: We would need to have a 10-year action program whose whole purpose is to make local societies more resilient to natural hazards.

It’s mind-boggling to see how the same hurricane that cost 2,000 lives in Haiti and really destroyed the whole city of Gonaives caused no loss of lives in Cuba. This was because Cuba has a well-functioning early-warning system and evacuation system, and has cheap but sturdy housing construction, etc.

It’s mind-boggling to see how Iran is able, through its Red Crescent organization — a sister organization of the Red Cross — to mobilize hundreds of relief workers within hours in an earthquake-stricken area, whereas other disaster-prone regions have no local capacity and must wait for us to send relief brigades.

Q: Is there a need here for a paradigm shift, given that many donor countries focus aid on post-crisis relief and not enough on prevention?

A: Indeed, we are seeing that paradigm shift now.

From the United States to China, there is an understanding of the importance of prevention and preparedness rather than only with disaster response. There are many examples of good prevention activities — how tree-planting, dike-building, shelter construction have helped save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are as many good examples as bad examples. Some donors now provide a portion of the core assistance earmarked for disaster prevention. And we see more and more possibilities to link up countries in South?South cooperation.

What we have to do is build local capacities, really, and invest more in humanitarian relief. I don’t think people understand, on the one hand, how effective humanitarian assistance has become. We can save lives for a dollar a day. We can provide food for a dollar a day in extreme circumstances. We can vaccinate children for a dollar a kid, or less.

There is no better investment of taxpayer money. The total [annual] humanitarian assistance around the world is less than one day of military spending in the world.

Q: How much money does it take to put in place an early-warning disaster mechanism globally?

A: A preventive early warning? It depends.

We can, for a few hundred million dollars, have a worldwide system of immediate reaction to any crisis anywhere.

What we should at least be able to do is to save lives and start reconstruction and development processes. We have appealed for $3 billion to $4 billion in recent years as a total appeal for humanitarian assistance around the globe.

This sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t very big compared with what is spent on public and private activities in most rich countries. And, still, we get only half or less than half of what we ask for.

Q: What factors handicap your work?

A: My work is handicapped mainly by two things: one, too little funding, as we spoke about, to really be able to use the tools in neglected and forgotten emergencies. So we now have gotten funding, not only for Iraq [but for] other places that are finding international attention like the Balkans and the Caucuses of late. But the other reason I’m not able to use my tools is that undemocratic regimes prevent us from getting access. Terrorist organizations attack us, and humanitarian workers have withdrawn in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

I feel we’ve had a revolution in capabilities: We can deploy anywhere on Earth within 24 hours. We never had so many good experts that idealistically, and courageously, are willing to work around the world.

Q: How much emphasis do you put on radio and television to overcome high levels of illiteracy in some poor countries?

A: Increasingly, using news media is very important for us in advocacy and public information networking and so on. In Somalia, radio stations that [disseminated] Internet pages in the middle of the chaos interviewed me, and were funded by commercial entities [such as] the Coca-Cola plant in Mogadishu, where there is no embassy and no U.N. agency.

Q: How are you trying to help communities to be better prepared for disasters?

A: They can be empowered by training their people and by organizing their people. They are the closest to the emergency, those who will be there when disaster strikes. They speak the language, they know how to communicate and operate and navigate in their own societies.

However, we need to train them, we need to give them the tools they need. So, very often, it’s a matter of helping the local Red Cross and Red Crescent society to have more resources, to get more qualified personnel. To get the local churches or religious communities to be more effective, and to get the local municipality staff to really function. That’s what will happen in Kobe.

We will have hundreds of meetings where people will share their experiences, and those who need to know will copy the best practices.

Q: How do you see the role of the United States as a major power in disaster relief?

A: The United States is our biggest donor. We are, for example, totally dependent on U.S. food aid, which is usually more than half — and very often the overwhelming part of the food aid that averts starvation around the world.

The United States is not at all the biggest donor in per capita terms. I think American taxpayers often believe they have the biggest burdens. But it should be known that we — the Scandinavians — pay five to 10 times more per taxpayer.

Still, the United States is the biggest contributor, and we have excellent relations with USAID and with the U.S. State Department as our counterparts.

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