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Jan Egeland: Saving human lives is no place for amateurs

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NEW YORK - The way ACT International handled the tsunami catastrophe is an example for others. The members were effective; they understood the need for coordination. "They did well". These are the words of Jan Egeland, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs during the tsunami five years ago. In an interview in the newly released book "With Courage, In Hope - the tsunami five years after" he gives compliments to ACT International for its professional standard, and he ads: "Saving human lives is no place for amateurs".

Egeland is currently director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and also teaches at the University of Stavanger. The author of the ACT tsunami book, Chris Herlinger met Egeland in New York and discussed what went well, and what went wrong. Here follows the full interview:

What was the role of the faith community in the response to the tsunami?

It was an important role, even if it was not the most dominant. In a huge, breaking catastrophe like the tsunami, the Red Cross and the UN have the resources given their access to resources and links with governments. The churches and other religious groups came in that second wave. In relative terms, they were most important in the rebuilding phase.

Churches and church networks such as ACT International have certain general qualities: they're grass-roots based and oriented; they're already on the ground, close to local parties and players. ACT and members like Norwegian Church Aid were all very good in focusing on local needs, and assisting local implementing partners. Of course, the faith-based groups were only a part of the UN-coordinated response. In all, there were about 300 or more NGOs involved - most were not faith-based. But I think the faith-based groups performed well. Some suffered from the same problems that many of the groups experienced: they had an infusion of money, a lot of it, and many wanted to implement themselves, rather than working with local groups. In fact, a problem here was that many groups did not have local partners. That was an overall problem - too many organizations, too many people doing their own implementation. But generally, the faith groups did well; they did effective work. In fact, the response showed the importance and necessity of networks like ACT, which understood the need for coordination and the fact that not all agencies can be operational in such a situation. In recent years, ACT and its member churches have understood this need for global coordination.

Was the response an overkill?

Overkill? I've reflected on that, and yes, compared to events unfolding elsewhere, it was too much. There were other natural disasters and wars at the same time that got a fraction of the response and attention that the tsunami received. I was acutely aware that we were mobilizing a response unlike anything that mankind had mobilized in a natural disaster before. So many countries were hit. I don't know of any other disaster that affected two continents thousands of miles apart. There have been equally bad natural disasters that affected individual countries or regions - in Bangladesh, in Africa. But the tsunami was unique in the range of its destructive power.

And that has created problems of expectations?

It is true we've had situations, such as the Congo, where the death toll every six months has been enormous and no one seems to care. So in that sense, the tsunami-response established the bar we've now set for huge catastrophic events. We should now have the same level of response for other disasters. That has led to problems of expectations, true, and in an ideal world, we would not have the problem of a single disaster, a tsunami, taking up 80 percent of the world's response at a given time. Of course, Doctors Without Borders eventually diverted funds to other disasters, something that may not be possible for groups like the Red Cross or the UN because of their broader mandates and local presence. Still, in conclusion, I'm proud of the response effort as it unfolded. We got, for once, enough funding for everyone's immediate needs and for reconstruction.

Why did the tsunami trigger such an emotional response on the part of donors?

I think there were numerous factors here. One, it was a natural disaster of enormous proportions, and we know from experience that sudden events, like earthquakes, always trigger more of a response, and attention, than slow onset disasters like droughts. Second, it occurred during the holiday season, at the slowest time of a yearly news cycle. And the holiday season is a reflective period - for Christians it's Christmas, for the whole world, it's New Year's, and people were saying, "We're doing fine, but the survivors of this event are not." There was the element of people aware right away of a response, of operations being undertaken to assist. Of course, the experience of Western tourists in the disaster, as portrayed by the media, certainly made Western donors feel close to the event. The tourists were able to provide dramatic video-imagery - imagery that was repeated again and again.

What were the problems with the overall response?

Aceh in Indonesia was, of course, an active conflict zone, like Sri Lanka, and these were the worst-hit areas. The initial emergency response there saved a lot of lives: that's undeniable. But the general response, globally, was so large that it became a lost opportunity to empower local communities. And it took too long to get to the rebuilding stage. I was there 10 months after the event and people were still living in tents. People there felt there really had been too many actors and that the overall response was not as coordinated as it could have been. Of course, no one denied they had emergency relief available: food, temporary schools, medicines had all been provided. But there were delays in the second phase; in some ways it was painful to witness the first and even second anniversaries, when people still had not received permanent housing. Luckily, by the third and fourth anniversaries, they had gotten it. If we had had more robust coordination at the rehabilitation phase, some of the reconstruction could have happened at a more rapid rate.

The tsunami and its response helped end the conflict in Aceh, but did little to end a similar situation in Sri Lanka. How would you assess the differences?

Part of the difference was due to the very different devastation that occurred in both places. In Sri Lanka, a wall of water wiped away buildings, but in Aceh it was like a nuclear bomb had gone off; a much, much larger part of Aceh was destroyed than any single part of Sri Lanka. I think in Indonesia, a wise decision was made when faced by this destruction. Both sides of the conflict realized nature had put the dimensions of war into perspective. "Our petty conflict looks ridiculous in light of this common enemy," they realized. In Sri Lanka, very initially, the Tamils and the government worked together, but then an unwise decision was made to continue the quarreling and the conflict. It was a horrific mistake, an opportunity was really lost. They could have settled the issue, as they did in Aceh, but both sides were hell-bent on a military solution.

You've said in your book, A Billion Lives, that the response showed "humanity at its best." What do you mean?

We saw people in 90 countries respond, and military forces from 36 countries came with relief. Tens of thousands, rich and poor alike, donated money and time to response. That showed the potential for good in the world, which is seldom ever mobilized on such a massive scale. In fact, nothing before or afterwards has elicited that kind of global compassion. This capacity for good is striking: we have resources like no other generation of humanity at our disposal - better telecommunications, better tools, better organizations and organizational skills.

Of course, we must learn lessons as well - the lessons of responding to "utter chaos." Here is there a special lesson for the churches - the faithful that want to help, to do good in the world. There were instances where the response was untested, chaotic, amateurish, doubled up, overlapping, done by "Mom and Pop" operations. That's why it's important to have ACT - a large, professional church network that has the same self-discipline as the UN and the Red Cross. Because if you're not a professional in this game, you have no right to descend on someone in their moment of crisis and do on-the-job training. Saving human lives is no place for amateurs. Why is that? Because the poor, dispossessed and disaster-prone should have at least one basic right left to them: to be protected from incompetence.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.