By Mike Penrose
In the business I am in, that of humanitarian aid in Asia and more specifically South East Asia, this is the region of the world that still delights and perplexes me in equal measures. It is clearly the most economically dynamic and socially mobile region on earth. It is however, also the world’s most disaster-prone region.
The perplexing element is that we have, at the moment, all the makings of future mega-disasters coming together in a potential “perfect storm.” Remaining high levels of poverty, increasing urbanization and rapidly developing mega-cities twinned with increasingly intense natural disasters. In short, the chance of a category 5 cyclone or a major earthquake hitting a large urban area causing widespread destruction is high and getting higher.
Take the devastating March 2011 earthquake in Japan as an example. Even in one of the world’s most developed, technologically advanced and ordered countries, an earthquake of that magnitude can still wreak enormous devastation (especially when you include the “manmade” dynamic, namely the impact it had on the Fukushima nuclear power plant). If you then overlay this on to the rapidly emerging middle economies in Southeast Asia, with their growing urban centers, you can see what is concerning.
The challenge to Asian aid agencies such as Save the Children as well as to regional donors such as South Korea and Japan, is to take the lessons learned by the rapid growth and economic miracles achieved since 1953 and 1945, respectively, and help guide economic and civil development in these emerging economies.
True community resilience, as demonstrated by Save the Children’s response in Japan, comes when a strong state apparatus coincides with strong civil society and where local community groups ensure that the human aspect of any disaster coincides with the strong “big ticket” civil defense and logistics response of a robust and disaster aware state.
We can also draw on the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster to help ensure that future “risky” economic developments (such as nuclear power and heavy industry) are undertaken with disaster resilience in mind.
Save the Children is focusing heavily on what we consider to be the next great leap forward in disaster planning and response in Asia.
How do strong civil society agencies ensure that the (increasingly urban) communities in which people live and work are ready and prepared for what is inevitable? And how do we ensure, when disaster does strike, that the most vulnerable in society, namely children, access immediate critical assistance in complex urban settings.
As well as our well-publicized work in the developing world, in the last few years Save the Children has also responded to disasters in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the United States, Italy and Spain. In each case we found that the immediate and critical needs of the most vulnerable in society were overlooked.
All of these governments carried out very impressive search and rescue operations, set up efficient evacuation centers, fed, watered and nursed the affected. But every time it was the most vulnerable, the youngest, the least independent who still suffered the most.
My call is to donors such as Korea and Japan to work with experienced Asian civil society organizations such as Save the Children to properly fund and adequately support disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness activities across Asia, covering both the heavy and human aspects of preparedness and response.
What is also needed is support to funds such as the Save the Children “Children’s Emergency Fund” that allows experienced groups like Save the Children to respond when disaster strikes, within minutes and hours, not days and weeks, so we catch the most vulnerable quickly, during the immediate first few hours after a disaster when lasting psychological damage can usually be averted.
The ambition of the Korean government to aim for 0.7 percent of its GDP to be spent on development marks it as a leader in funding humanitarian programming.
By working more closely with civil society organizations in delivering a balanced program of disaster risk reduction and mitigation programs focused on the realities of Asia today, and by providing flexible and easy access to disaster funding for credible partners, such as Save the Children, it can also be a leader in the delivery of modern, appropriate, 21st century aid programs.
Mike Penrose is humanitarian director of Save the Children.