Is it time for a permanent UN international rescue force?


The United Nations is reporting that Cyclone Idai is probably the most destructive storm ever known to have struck the southern hemisphere.

Estimates of the dead and homeless in five different countries, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa, suggest that maybe thousands have died, many are injured and millions made homeless by this giant cyclone.

“Idai” can mean “Love” or “Awakening” but there has been nothing affectionate about the devastating and unpredictable path this storm took, while it has certainly provided a rude awakening for hard-stretched local emergency services.

High winds tore apart buildings in Mozambique’s key port of Beira while torrential rain caused rivers to swell and flooded large areas in the city. Hardly less catastrophic damage was caused inland in Zimbabwe. The cyclone first hit Madagascar with catastrophic consequences before lopping back toward the African coast.

International aid organizations, working as usual through the UN, have rushed aid to all the stricken areas but it is already clear that the task is monumental. Delivering the right help to the right countries must be posing a considerable logistics challenge. Moreover, operating with already over-worked coordinating teams in five different governments requires an extra level of organization.

The full extent of this disaster and the way in which its consequences have been handled will only become apparent in the coming weeks. But there are already indications, certainly in Mozambique, that rescue services have proved themselves relatively resilient in the face of this huge calamity.

It is also notable that within the international response to the havoc wrought by Idai, India has been playing a prominent role, sending immediate aid. China, which has extensive commercial and infrastructural projects in Africa, was a little slower off the mark. A government spokesman in Beijing said Tuesday that China would respond to any aid requests from any of the affected governments. The problem, as ever in such natural disasters, is for the local authorities to know what help is needed where. Past experience shows that disparate international organizations can pour in far more aid than is required in certain places, while overlooking others where it is still desperately needed.

In the wake of disasters in recent years, there have sometimes been warehouses still packed with tents and other supplies that were not necessary. While it is fair to argue that better an excess of aid than too little, the global response to all major tragedies still lacks efficient coordination. There remains a strong case for a properly funded and resourced international rescue body, with well-trained personnel, transport, equipment and communications that is able to arrive within hours of a disaster. Such an organization should also have immediate access to relevant satellite imagery from every country with equipment orbiting in space.

The control of this international rescue organization should obviously rest with the UN, but because it would be a standing force with an urgent proactive role, it should be free of the often bloated bureaucracy that characterizes much of the UN’s activities. Who would host it, in what regions it would be stationed and who would make up its personnel are obviously key questions. However, given the steady flow of natural disasters, it is unlikely to be unemployed for long. And after it had done its rescue work, it could also have a further role in helping the rebuilding of shattered regions.