A partnership approach to compassion

How will Lord Ashdown’s review sustain and improve our response in delivering humanitarian aid?

In the six short months since the coalition government came to power, the world has witnessed catastrophic floods in Pakistan, famine in Niger and, most recently, a cyclone in Burma. Less than a year ago, Haiti was devastated by a powerful earthquake. Families have been fractured, com­munities torn apart and lives shattered. The sheer scale of the human loss and devastation belies words and is a sober reminder of why humanitarian aid is so important.

On a visit to Pakistan during the summer, I saw first hand how the floods which had followed July's monsoon rains had destroyed people's lives and transformed the landscape into a nightmare of mud and dirt. Among the devastation, I also got to see how international aid was all that stood between hope and despair.

Bulwark in times of emergency

Here in the UK, we have a great tradition of stepping in when others are in need, for being that bulwark in times of emergency. This is something of which we can be proud. Our experience and readiness meant we were one of the first countries to respond to the foods in Pakistan, supplying vital food, shelter and medical supplies within days. And the response of the British public to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal was, true to form, generous and swift.

Sadly, we are likely to see new disasters in future. In many parts of the world, the threat from earthquakes and volcanoes is a constant presence. Scientists predict that the intense climatic events we have seen in recent years are only likely to increase in frequency and intensity.

The coalition government is determined to meet this challenge head on and we must look to raise the bar further on our humanitarian work. We must do even better, respond even faster, so that we are ready for tomorrow's disasters as well as today's.

A few months ago, I asked Lord Ashdown to lead an independent review of our coalition government's response to humanitarian disasters and emergencies, to look at how we react to these and keep the UK as a world leader in this field.

There are several areas that I believe are central to this. First, do we have the right skills and the right people to support our response? Since the election, this government has looked to establish a more inclusive approach across Whitehall, recognising the role that development can play alongside defence and diplomacy. We want to take this strategic approach to humanitarian assistance, looking to all the skills and partners ­available to us to help deliver the best ­possible solution. For example, can we make better use of the logistical capabilities of the British armed forces or the ­relevant experts within the Stabilisation Unit, which reports to the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Department for International Development?

Second, how can we reinforce existing partnerships with other organisations and build new ones that will help us to do even more? For example, I believe the private sector has a key role to play. In Haiti, Diageo commissioned aircraft and delivered more than 45,000lbs of food and emergency supplies. We need to see more of this sort of initiative.

Taxpayers' money

Third, how does the UK play its part in the wider international response and can we improve how that works? I am currently reviewing the way in which international organisations such as the UN or the World Food Programme use the money that we give them. I am absolutely clear that taxpayers' hard-earned money should only be going to those bodies that share our aims and that have a track record of delivering.

Fourth, how does the government engage with the British public during emergencies? Compassion and generosity run deep in the hearts of British people. The last Comic Relief raised more than ever before, despite the recession. I believe the public can be proud of what the government is doing in their name, but we must be better at explaining exactly how we spend their money in emergency situations in order to maintain support in the longer term.

Finally, how can we exploit emerging technologies and research to complement our efforts? Here again, the private sector could have a key role. We've already seen Digicel using mobile phone data in Haiti to map the migration of people displaced by the earthquake and MapAction providing regularly updated maps showing where relief was most urgently needed. The possibilities are endless: all we need is the imagination and the will. We must look at all of these issues and identify what more we can do.

Disaster response will not be treated in isolation from our other work. It is part of a continuum that begins with risk reduction and culminates in sustained growth. It is important that we take a high-level look across all our development policies. Policies in other areas, whether on gender, human rights or migration, need to be fully aligned with our humanitarian efforts - and we will shift our approach accordingly.
Taking pride in leadership

As we look ahead to a new year, we should take pride in the UK's leadership on international development and in the fact that we are the first G20 country to set out how we will meet our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid from 2013. Yet, we must also spare a moment to remember the terrible human loss that has occurred over the past 12 months. We cannot tell what 2011 may hold but, in the interests of the world's poorest and neediest people, we must be prepared for whatever it brings, ready to respond as we always do, with that uniquely British comb­in­ation of grit and compassion. Millions around the world will depend on us.

Andrew Mitchell is Secretary of State for the Department for International Development

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle