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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 December 15; 335(7632): 1233.
PMCID: PMC2137096

Use military and private sector to cope with disasters, aid agencies told

Aid agencies must make greater use of the military and the private sector if they are to cope with the increasing number of humanitarian disasters, experts have warned.

Speaking at a conference on disaster relief held in London last week, John Mcgrath, programme researcher at Oxfam International, said that climate change and increasing urbanisation were changing the impact, frequency, and pace of disasters.

Disasters had quadrupled since the 1980s, with category 5 floods and storms doubling from 40-50 in the 1970s to 90 in the past five years alone.

“I’m not saying climate change is responsible for everything, but it interacts with other factors, despoiling the environment, so increasing the vulnerability to disaster,” he said.

A particularly worrying trend was the rise in small and medium scale disasters, which brought a death toll of between 6000 and 140 000 and had a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods in poor regions of the world.

“A succession of small shocks has major consequences, pushing people into a spiral of destitution,” he said.

Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures programme at King’s College, London, said that non-governmental organisations had to rethink the way in which they respond to disasters.

Networking and closer collaboration were essential to help agencies become “more adaptive and effective,” he suggested.

And sending people out to regions of the world hit by crises would become less and less relevant in increasingly complex situations where the culture was best understood by local people, he said.

Organisations also needed to shift their focus from rural settings to urban conurbations, because 54% of the world’s population lives in cities, most of them on coastal plains, he said.

“The dimensions of future crises will be well beyond the humanitarian sector, and new approaches and techniques will be needed,” he warned.

“You need the private sector. Corporations will be the last ones left,” he said, adding that non-governmental organisations should use the skills and resources of the military.

“They apply lessons learnt after action, they strategise and forward plan, and they invest heavily in research and development,” he said, all of which would be invaluable for developing “disaster preparedness.”

Mike Elmore Meegan, founder and director of the international charity ICROSS, said, “The obvious cock-ups are often caused by not understanding the vast amount of knowledge that’s already out there.”

Changing patterns of mobility and new disease threats were exacerbated by preventable problems, such as low literacy, poor sanitation, and inadequate prevention, he said.

“Disasters are no longer one offs, but a wide spread of ongoing conditions. Before preparedness, we need awareness,” he said.

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