Policy Document on Disaster Interventions for Consideration by IASSW Board, Jan 2010
Disaster interventions are natural and human made phenomena that cause severe disruptions to daily life routines. They are usually serious and require external intervention or assistance. Thus, there are calls for social work interventions in helping people deal with the aftermath of disasters in both immediate and long-terms. Disaster interventions have traditionally focused on flooding, tsunamis, landslides, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and drought. These are usually associated with nature and described as ‘natural disasters’. Those linked to industrial pollution or environmental degradation, e.g., Bhopal, and armed conflicts, e.g., Rwanda, are termed ‘(hu)man-made’.
Today, we also have climate change that is creating disasters that are caused by extreme weather events that have a link to human behaviour connected to burning fossil fuels and industrialisation processes. The effects of climate change vary from the disappearance of small island nations in the Pacific Ocean like Tuvalu and the Maldives because as the earth’s temperature rises, glaciers and ice-caps in the Arctic and Antarctic will melt and lead to significant rises in ocean levels, through to drought with an ensuing desertification of land in many parts of the world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, climate change will lead to half a billion more people facing food insecurity and 1.4 billion in India and China becoming affected by water shortages caused by glaciers melting in Nepal. Events such as these will cause mass migrations within and between countries to intensify (UNDP, 2007, 2008, Sanders 2009).
Disasters, however caused, present pressing social issues that require urgent resolution at the individual, local, national and international levels. Their resolution can be controversial and contested, especially as ‘help’ may come in the form of internationalising practices that fail to respect local conditions and traditions and be received as new forms of colonialism (Mohanty, 2003). For example, the USA has ‘tied’ aid by requiring that 70 per cent of the sums are spent to employ Americans who will ‘help’ in disaster relief efforts and purchase goods and services made in America. Roger Riddell (2007) has argued that ‘tied’ aid restricts opportunities in the receiving country and can distort their development opportunities, an issue that becomes important in long-term reconstruction endeavours.
The United Nations (UN) through its various bodies, e.g., the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and civil society organisations like the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are key agencies through which humanitarian aid in disaster situations is delivered, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the event. In this context, their activities focus on providing food, water, shelter and medical supplies on a non-discriminatory basis. IFRC is composed of 186 societies at national level and has 97 million volunteers world-wide. It has been in existence in some form since 1919, although the current structure was developed in 1991. The Seville Agreement of 1997 was formulated to lessen tensions between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies at national level and the IFRC.
Social workers are involved throughout the aid process – assessing need, co-ordinating and delivering goods and services, assisting in family reunification, supporting individuals and communities in rebuilding their lives and developing resilience and building capacity to minimise risks for future disasters. Disaster interventions depend on the nature of the disaster, local conditions and traditions, and the personnel and resources available. Disasters affect countries differently and each nation will have variable capacities in responding to the problems that the disaster creates for them. Low income countries and people will have greater difficulties responding adequately. They are also the ones that will find it hard to adjust to disasters including climate change without having contributed much to creating it (UNDP, 2007, 2008). Disasters also impact most on women and children (UNDP, 2008), yet they are least likely to have a direct say in what forms the interventions into their lives will take once a disaster has occurred (Pittaway et al., 2007).
Disasters are natural and human-made phenomena that occur as largely unpredictable events that have horrendous outcomes including the destruction of lives, property and the environment. Perez and Thompson (1994) have defined disaster as widespread extensive damage that is beyond the coping capacity of any community and therefore requires external intervention. The UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) use Gunn’s (1990) definition of disaster as ‘the result of a vast ecological breakdown in the relationship between man (sic) and his (sic) environment…[with] disruption on such a scale that the stricken community needs extraordinary efforts to cope’. Dominelli (2007) has suggested that existing definitions be enlarged to cover poverty because it is the largest human-made disaster and climate change because it is different from other ecological disasters (Dominelli, 2009).
Poverty has a key impact on people’s capacity to deal with a disaster and so is a cause of disaster as well as exacerbating its effects and undermining people’s resilience and capacity to cope with these both individually and collectively.. For example, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in the USA – the richest country in the world. It disproportionately affected poor African American communities who bore the brunt of the $140 billion of damages it caused and who were least able to deal with its effects in both the short and long-terms (Pyle, 2007). Groups that have been at the receiving end of disasters, whether natural and human-made, include indigenous people and other groups on low incomes. The UN General Assembly has approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 to address such issues.
Climate change affects people in ways that can cause serious damage to everyday life routines, health, environmental sustainability, agriculture and food security, although their effects are likely to be felt most keenly by women and children (UNDP, 2008).Disasters are differentially experienced and the capacities of individuals, groups and communities to respond or adjust are also different. The IFRC (2009) reports that 76 per cent of the damage caused by disasters is located in industrialising countries; 92 per cent of the people affected also reside in them; and 65 per cent of the economic losses are similarly situated there.
This document defines disasters, examines disaster interventions including the international structures that deliver services to people in the immediate and longer-terms and makes suggestions for social workers to consider when providing humanitarian assistance.
Responding appropriately to disasters requires responses to the event itself in both short and long-terms as well as calling for preventative measures that will reduce risk or the likelihood of an inadequate response being made when disaster strikes. These can be problematic to develop, especially if those intervening are not sensitive to local needs, conditions and traditions (Hancock, 1996) or end up reinforcing existing armed conflicts and imperialistic social relations (Hoogvelt, 2007). Migration caused by climate change will become a major problem if progress is not made in keeping temperature rises under control (Stern, 2006) as the ensuing desertification and flooding will intensify the pressures on people to migrate. This will include people who lead nomadic lifestyles in sub-Saharan Africa as well as those living in low-lying areas like Bangladesh. The UN estimates that an additional 250 million people might have to move by 2050 if temperature rises are not kept to below 20C. To complicate matters further, the Geneva Convention does not apply to climate migrants (Sanders, 2009; Meo, 2009). To respond to their needs, new protocols are necessary to cover them (UNDP, 2008).
There are also tensions between immediate relief efforts and development endeavours in both the economic and social domains that cater for long-term reconstruction. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals, agreed in 2000, to tackle 8 areas that were seen as contributing to poverty and underdevelopment, can be deemed one way of addressing poverty and other barriers to the realisation of human potential. However, the current economic climate and the limited objectives of the MDG goals are likely to prevent their realisation by 2015 (Correll, 2008).
International Structures and Roles
The United Nations (UN) replaced the League of Nations in 1945 with the aim of getting nations to cooperate in building a better world after the disaster of World War II. Disaster interventions have been authorised under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which the member states in the UN agreed in 1948. Article 25 of the UDHR ensures the standards of living adequate for human health and well-being.This approach locates humanitarian interventions within a human rights framework. But the principles underpinning individual human rights can clash with those of state sovereignty when those responsible for upholding human rights violate them either by what they do or what they do not do. State sovereignty can be considered both a strength and a limitation of the UN. It is enshrined in Article 2(1) of the UN Charter and restricts international action in the internal affairs of member states. This is referred to as the principle of ‘non-interference in sovereign states’. Article 2(1) affirms the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States that recognised state sovereignty as fundamental to international relations and was agreed under the auspices of League of Nations in 1933.
As the UN’s failure to act appropriately in delivering aid has become problematic when the state itself is violating human rights, there have been calls for a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ that was first promoted by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000. The ‘sovereignty’ principle can be used by the state’s rulers to prevent assistance being delivered by external agencies. This occurred, for example, in Myanmar/Burma when Cyclone Nargis devastated large swathes of the country in 2008. Nonetheless, the UN Security Council (UNSC) can threaten or use ‘armed force without the agreement of the target state to address a humanitarian disaster caused by grave, large-scale and fundamental human rights violations’ (Perez and Thompson, 1994). Although the UNSC can authorise humanitarian intervention in disasters that have caused serious and widespread damage, considerable loss of life and where there is evidence of gross human rights violations, it is reluctant to simply impose such action on any specific state. At the same time, UN personnel delivering aid run the risk of being themselves abducted, abused and/or killed for embarking on such work. The murder of 22 UN personnel including its envoy, Sergio Viera de Melo during the suicide bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 are indicative of the risks taken by many humanitarian aid workers.
The UN’s major initiatives on disasters began with the reconstruction endeavours in Europe and the mass displacements of its peoples after World War II. The roles of co-ordinating, overseeing and monitoring developments were later assumed by the body created especially for this purpose, the UN Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR) which came into existence on 14 December 1950 and was based in Geneva. Although the UNCHR assumed many functions of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, it was replaced in 2006 by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The UNHRC was created as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly to address criticisms of the UNCHR articulated primarily by the USA and Israel for allowing nations with poor human rights records to sit on its decision-making structures. They have continued with these criticisms, despite this change. Indeed, the USA, Israel and two other small nations voted against the formation of the UNCHR. George W Bush also boycotted its deliberations – an irony given the controversies he courted over human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and under the provisions of the Patriots’ Act in the USA itself (Pearlstein and Posner, 2009). The UNCHR, like its predecessor relies on the IFRC and other NGOs to deliver humanitarian aid. The UNCHR is also responsible for the review of human rights, the Universal Periodic Review, and assesses the human rights situation in all 192 member states of the UN. The performance of the UNCHR’s work is facilitated by an Advisory Committee and a Complaints Procedure. The Advisory Committee is composed of 26 elected experts in the human rights arena. The Complaints Procedure is conducted through a panel of 5 representatives, each one being drawn from one of the UN’s five regions. There are also special rapporteurs who undertake country-based investigations into human rights violations. In 2006, the special rapporteurs addressed the issue of poverty during Human Rights Day.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supports the work of the UNCHR by being responsible for the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees that provides refuge for those seeking to escape persecution. The UNHCR is responsible for 34.4 million people, most of which are internally displaced. Only 800,000 of the overall total are asylum seekers. None of those included in the UNHCR figures are people seeking refuge from climate change because they are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention. The UNHCR has also expanded humanitarian aid to cover ‘persons of concern’ as defined by the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the State of Refugees which has included internally displaced persons, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 Organisation for African Unity Convention.
The UDHR provisions under Article 25 could potentially be used to deliver services to those migrating for reasons of climate change. The UDHR could also encompass the ‘person in their environment’ which would cover both physical and social environments as these contribute to an individual’s or community’s well-being. This could provide the basis for a positive response to disaster interventions. It is also an element that chimes in well with social work ethics and the international definition of social work. Given that we live in an interdependent world, it would mean that social solidarity could become the basis on which one group of people would ensure the well-being of (an)others. However, its implementation would require changes to global social policies.
Other UN bodies associated with disaster interventions are the UN Disaster Assistance and Co-ordination (UNDAC) which has 57 countries that include the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Samoa, and Tonga as members. Additionally, international NGOs or parts of civil society such as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Oxfam and Save the Children are active players. Especially in the immediate aftermath of disasters, organisations like these provide urgently needed food, clothing, shelter and medicine. In 2008, the IFRC responded to 326 natural disasters that killed 235,736 people, the highest level since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (IFRC, 2009).
The UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs is currently John Holmes. He coordinates the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which replaced the Department for Humanitarian Affairs in 1998. OCHA has an Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs, an Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The original remit for IASC arose through the General Assembly in 1992 when Resolution 46/92 was passed. This sought to develop the infrastructure that would achieve better: co-ordination of activities and resources; inter-agency decision-making in response to complex emergencies; and integrated multi-sectoral approaches to disaster relief. IASC is composed of UN agencies such as the UNDP, UNFPA, UNHABITAT, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank; standing invitees like ICRC, IFRC; and other civil society organisations known for their work in humanitarian aid that are invited on an ad hoc basis. The IASC has a Working Group to develop guidelines for interventions during disasters. These guidelines aim to improve coordination and facilitate inter-agency decision-making while providing guidelines that would uphold human rights, ethical behaviour and empowering values. These covered a range of subjects including women and mental health. Social workers were included in the creation of those linked to psycho-social interventions (Bragin, 2008). OCHA is also linked to the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) and the Central Revolving Emergency Fund (CERF).
Other forms of support for humanitarian aid during different kinds of disasters include the following. Peacekeeping activities in 24 countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Somalia and Kenya. The UN High Commission for Refugees’ Representation in Cyprus is charged with assisting those living in that troubled island. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) has been responsible for implementing the UN’s Palestine Mandate and the refugees that were created when the state of Israel was formed. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian nation is ongoing, with limited chances of reaching a solution over human rights violations and land claims. Palestinians who are not covered by UNRWA can access UN support through the UNHCR’s more limited provisions for covering refugee status. The UNHCR has staff in 110 countries to implement its responsibilities. UN’s Food Programme is another initiative and assists in disasters by providing food aid. It currently provides food to 100 million people in 80 countries.
Climate change has so far been excluded as a specific issue of concern with regards to the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, major discussions on climate change hosted by the UN have sought to prevent the rise of temperatures to the dangerous levels (believed to be more than 20C by 2050) that will precipitate catastrophic reactions for some peoples and nations, including the disappearance of small island states in the Pacific Ocean; the extinction of a large number of flora and fauna; and further undermine the lives of millions or even billions of human beings. The UN’s deliberations on this subject have included the following:
• 1990 – Kyoto Protocol agreed by 184 countries in Kyoto, Japan. It commits 37 industrial countries (Annex 1 countries) to reduce their carbon emissions by 5 per cent per year between 1997 and 2012 when the Kyoto agreement terminates.
• 1992 – Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro agreed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It commits governments to prevent dangerous climate change deemed to be to limit temperature rise to no more than 20C.
• Fifteen meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the last one (COP15) being held in Copenhagen in December 2009. The 2010 meeting, COP16, will be held in Mexico.
The three international ‘sister’ organisations of the IASSW, ICSW and IFSW became involved jointly in these debates for the first time in Copenhagen on 10 December 2009.
The Role of Social Workers in Disaster Situations
Social workers are encouraged by their professional associations to respond to disasters within an environmentally friendly, human rights and social justice perspective.Social workers play various roles in disaster situations (Desai, 2007). Many of these are enacted in responding to the immediate aftermath of a disaster and include being a:
· Community mobiliser (of people and systems).
· Mobiliser of resources.
· Negotiator or broker between communities and different levels of government.
· Mediator between conflicting interests and groups, including those based on gender relations.
· Consultant to government and other agencies.
· Advocate for people’s rights and entitlements.
· Educator, giving out information about how to access relief aid and avoid diseases that can erupt following a disaster.
· Trainer, particularly in how to respond effectively in mobilising local resources when disaster strikes.
· Cultural interpreter.
· Therapist helping people deal with the emotional consequences of disaster (Dominelli, 2009).
Disaster intervention manuals have traditionally focused on reducing risk defined as minimising the objective and subjective probability that a negative event will occur. They have suggested that the following actions are crucial in disaster relief situations:
· Reversing any ill affects on health.
· Modifying identified hazards.
· Decreasing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience.
· Improving disaster preparedness for future possible disasters (Perez and Thompson, 1994).
The UN tends to see social workers’ roles primarily as mobilising communities to: assess situations; distribute resources in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; and provide psycho-social care. The IASC included social workers in the formation of the Psycho-Social Guidelines (Yule, 2008; Bragin, 2009), but more work remains to be undertaken on this front if social work is to gain a strong voice at the decision-making table. Finding solutions that will achieve the objectives identified above within an overall goal of culturally sensitive and responses that are fair and equitable is very complicated. They require communities and individuals to develop their resilience, adaptive capacities and abilities in assessing vulnerabilities and risk in specific situations and locations. Such developments can assist in formulating preventative measures, particularly those that affect hospital and other health services and shelter provisions in both the short and long-terms. Preventive initiatives can also help to mainstream: prevention; early warning systems; and humanitarian responses. These goals have yet to be fully implemented even in the areas affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. However, disaster endeavours will have to uphold human rights, social and environmental justice, and the equitable distribution of finite resources if robust solutions that will survive into the future are to be created. The values of fairness and justice are essential underpinnings to disaster relief efforts. They are also difficult to realise in disaster conditions when basic communication, transportation and governance infrastructures have disappeared.
Drawing heavily on Desai (2007), I posit the skills and processes involved in working in disaster-affected communities below. They do not necessarily follow one another in a neat order, but often occur simultaneously and messily. They are:
· Making initial contact.
· Engaging local people throughout the processes of intervention.
· Assessing available information and identifying areas of work.
· Drawing up contracts for the work to be undertaken.
· Initiating the required action(s).
· Constantly evaluating the results.
Social workers who pick up the pieces of disasters including those that will result from climate change have an important role to play in policy formation and finding solutions that will not pit people against each other. Thus, they need to understand the science behind disasters including climate change; the problems that disasters pose in different parts of the world; the limitations of existing solutions; and look for ways of resolving the problems that are already pressing for answers and those that they can anticipate.Solutions have to be found that will work at the personal, national and international levels. Individual practitioners, educators, and researchers can work for these on the personal level as well as mobilise the communities in which they work to do likewise.They can also act collectively and use their international organisations like IASSW, IFSW and ICSW to support initiatives aimed at changing policies at national and international levels and to change policy and its implementation in the UN and through its agencies, especially those operating at the regional and international levels.
Individuals can reduce the risks in being overwhelmed by disasters by developing their resiliency and taking the appropriate steps needed to minimise the likelihood that they will suffer adverse effects if disaster comes their way. These would depend on the nature of the disaster that they anticipate and the resources that they have at their disposal. For example, someone living in a flood-plain could take measures to ‘flood-proof’ their homes, e.g., some people in Bangladesh have begun to build houses on stilts so that the water can wash underneath their homes. People can reduce the impact of climate change on theirs and others’ lives by cutting their personal carbon footprint by using less energy. This can be done by replacing traditional light-bulbs with energy saving ones, insulating homes, reducing heating by 10C, limiting their use of air conditioning, using renewable energy sources like solar panels and heat pumps for heating, switching off electrical gadgets on ‘standby’ and travelling on public transport. Individual efforts are important as domestic emissions comprise 40 per cent of total emissions (Giddens, 2009). Personal action alone is not enough. Consensual, collective solutions at the national and international levels are also required.
National action will have to focus on empowering local communities and the people living within them and ensuring that the resources needed to limit the damage that can be caused by disasters are made available to those needing them. To make this happen, social workers can advocate for the policy of ‘pooling risks’ and help communities mobilise to help themselves achieve their goals. Local people usually have good suggestions to make if those making the decisions and holding the resources would be prepared or could be convinced of the importance of listening to their proposals and taking them into account in their deliberations. Social workers could also be involved in assessing existing emergency response plans and help involve local people in their reformulation where necessary.
Transfers of clean energy technologies are considered part of the solution to the issue of climate change. Additionally, funds to adapt to it and industrialise in a ‘green’ manner is needed by low income countries in the Global South. National governments can facilitate both actions by persuading companies to give away their ‘green’ technologies to low income countries by subsidising them to do so. Additionally, governments can provide money to help industrialising countries cope with the results and develop ‘green’ pathways to development that are sustainable and rely on local strengths and initiatives. At the end of 2009, the EU estimated that 100 billion euros per year would need to be transferred from rich countries to poor ones by 2020 to enable these developments to take place. It suggested that of this sum, Europe should provide $30 billion; the USA $25 billion; and the rest of the industrialised world the remainder on a yearly basis. These contributions were calculated according to the size of GDP and the level of carbon emissions. The EU deemed this an affordable amount as it was about 0.3 per cent of the annual overall income of rich countries (The Week, 2009, p. 28). Social workers can become involved in local and national actions that aim to reduce a country’s carbon footprint by advocating for them.
The three ‘sister’ organisations will have to develop their collaborative structures more fully than they have to date to strengthen their involvement in the UN and its many agencies that intervene in or promote actions aimed at enhancing people’s well-being.This is essential in getting a voice around the humanitarian aid table. The framework for international action on climate change is already in place and IASSW, IFSW and ICSW could embark on more joint activities to advocate for a ‘greener’ future and the benefits of it to be equitably distributed amongst the totality of the earth’s inhabitants. The imperative of limiting greenhouse emissions to 1,400 billion tonnes between 2000 and 2050 has been accepted as necessary to keep temperature rises below 20C. However, contemporary realities and the changing amounts that each country emits or does not emit suggest that a new international agreement has to go beyond the binary paradigm of the ‘West as the polluter’ and the ‘Developing world as the victim’ that currently prevails in international discussions on the topic as this is a major block to action and does not take on board today’s realities that significant growth in emissions is now coming from the emerging economies. This reality requires alternative solutions that see the world as one whole and accept the interdependencies between peoples and countries.
Actions to be Undertaken by Social Work Educators, Practitioners and Policymakers
Social workers can participate in climate change debates and take action that is consistent with their ethical principles. These are:
- Human rights and dignity at both individual and group levels;
- Social Justice;
- Interdependence, Reciprocity and Solidarity;
- Peace; and
- Environmental Justice.
Social workers are familiar with these principles because they are part of the ethics document agreed between IASSW and IFSW in 2004, and are also articulated in many national codes of ethics for practice across the world.
Given people’s scepticism (Hennessey, 2009) and the controversies over the abuse of humanitarian aid (Duffield, 1996, 2007), and the failure to reach a binding agreement on climate change in Copenhagen (Booker, 2009, Gray, 2009; Mason, 2009), taking action will not be easy: Social workers can become more proactive than has hitherto been the case to take actions that involve the following:
· Consciousness-raising whereby the issues around the impact of potential disasters including climate change can be discussed and debated according to various possible scenarios. This is particularly important at the individual and local levels.
· Lobbying for preventative measures taken at local level, e.g., building disaster proof houses to minimise the potential loss of homes while taking account of local needs, conditions and resources; nationally particularly around policy-making and the release of resources; and internationally especially in setting standards and monitoring their realisation.
· Mobilising communities locally, nationally and internationally, to initiate preventative action before disaster strikes and intervene appropriately when disaster strikes.
· Dialoguing with policymakers and the media to change policies at the local, national and international levels. This will include issues linked to resources and the sharing of technologies to ensure that those most at risk are helped to minimise these. For example, early warning systems for people who might be affected by a tsunami would reduce the death toll enormously. But even today, not all those affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami have access to such systems.
· Developing curricula that cover disasters as part of mainstream social work.
Paper respectfully submitted by Professor Lena Dominelli, Durham University
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