The Chairman’s statement at the recently concluded 41st ASEAN Ministers Meeting notes quite strongly the need for greater civilian – military cooperation and information sharing in disaster preparedness and response.
“The Ministers called for in greater civil-military coordination for major, multinational disaster responses through training, information sharing, and multinational exercises. They recognised that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses.”
This is a timely and vital emphasis and complements processes such as the International Process for Crisis Management by the ICT4Peace Foundation that is facilitating a greater degree of information sharing and interoperability between and within agencies at the United Nations.
Interestingly however, there is just one mention of “collaboration” in the statement and it’s not in relation to disasters or crisis management. It unsurprising to find the emphasis on coordination – which means that a single actor (most often a State) takes the responsibility for managing and preparing for disasters.
Collaboration involves relinquishing authority and inter alia, access to territory to international actors incl. foreign militaries and humanitarian agencies. Collaboration means access to infrastructure – physical and virtual – that shares information that agencies and States may be (at first) unwilling to disclose openly. Collaboration means grappling with agencies that come in and once embedded in the humanitarian effort, take the opportunity to critique the ability of State machinery to respond to the disaster, which opens up the regime to international scrutiny. Collaboration means that actors recognise that no one actor / agency / stakeholder has the power or ability in complex disasters to address all the needs of affected communities over the short, medium and long term.
Yet this understanding of collaboration versus coordination is fraught with very real political consequences. And ASEAN, being a ministerial level junket, is hugely conservative and Statist. Tellingly in this respect, although points 16 and 17 in the Chairman’s statement deal with Myanmar, there isn’t a word of condemnation for the junta’s monumental botch-up of the Cyclone Nargis relief efforts.
Since many countries in ASEAN are fixated with the exclusive understanding of and approach to territorial integrity, sovereignty and national security, it’s revealing that Point 9 states that:
In undertaking disaster relief cooperation, the Ministers agreed that several basic principles should continue to apply. These included the principle that the affected country has the primary responsibility to respond to the humanitarian needs of its people following natural disasters occurring within its territory in a prompt and effective manner; where needed, the affected country should facilitate humanitarian assistance from other countries and international organizations to achieve the overall objective of coordinated, timely and effective disaster management and relief based on identified needs; and that external assistance should be provided in response to a request from the affected country, and the disaster relief efforts should be under its overall coordination.
While all this sounds great in principle, what this also means is that Myanmar’s brutal junta can do just as it pleases in response to another disaster, given that the mechanics of coordination lie with the State and that all external assistance is at its behest.
On the other hand, the the UN’s R2P principles are also fraught with difficulties, as I’ve noted before on this blog in relation to a case like post-Nargis Myanmar.
What could help bridge these differences that are very real, impacts work on the ground and not just semantic?
A word that does not feature in the statement. Information sharing cannot and will not work without interoperable systems and information sharing architectures.
To read more and just why interoperability is centre and forward in crisis information management as well as disaster prevention, mitigation and response, read the ICT4Peace Foundation report on a roundtable discussion held recently in Mumbai.