Four Lessons Learned from the Myanmar Cyclone Disaster

Stephen DeAngelis

August 14, 2008

No response to natural disasters is ever perfect. Some responses, like the one to Hurricane Katrina, are significantly flawed. John Holmes, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator, takes a look back at the international community’s response to Cyclone Nargis that slammed into Myanmar’s coast some three months ago [“Disaster Lessons,” Washington Post, 6 August 2008]. He also provides an update on how things are faring in a state that remains shrouded in secrecy thanks to its ruling military junta. He writes:

“Three months have passed since Cyclone Nargis and an accompanying tidal surge swept across Myanmar’s fertile Irrawaddy Delta region, claiming nearly 140,000 lives and devastating the livelihoods of many more people. All told, some 2.4 million people were seriously affected by Nargis, ranking it among the worst cyclones in Asia in the past 15 years and the worst in Myanmar’s history. I recently completed my second trip to Myanmar, where I was again sobered by the immensity of the tragedy but was also cautiously hopeful about relief efforts. In May, government reluctance to allow international aid workers into the affected region sparked a storm of international criticism. We have made a lot of progress since then. Touring the delta by helicopter, I could see that many houses had been repaired one way or another. There was agricultural activity in the fields and commercial activity on the waterways. Schools are in session, in tents if not permanent classrooms. And hundreds of international aid staffers are now working in the delta. The promises about access made to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he saw Myanmar’s head of state, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in late May have essentially been kept.”

Holmes helicopter tour anecdotally gauged progress using measures of effectiveness that are becoming more common in the relief and development communities — measures like number of schools in session, amount of arable land being worked, and level of local economic activity. Gone are the days when gross measures, like tons of food delivered, were the principal yardsticks of effectiveness. Relief is about getting life back to normal and development is about improving and sustaining quality of life. Holmes praises the resilience of Myanmar’s citizens:

“Without question, the international response has helped save lives and reduce suffering. While it is impossible to be sure all survivors have been reached, I am confident that the overwhelming majority have received help, even if many still need a good deal more. Crucially, a much-feared second wave of deaths from starvation or disease has not happened — no small achievement, given that 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in the affected areas were destroyed. The people’s resilience has been remarkable, as was the degree of help and solidarity from individual citizens and organizations in Myanmar.”

The purpose of Holmes’ op-ed piece, however, is not to praise the international community for its help (although it deserves such praise). Holmes wants reflect on the lessons learned from that response. He focuses on four of those lessons.

“First, no nation, rich or poor, can go it alone when confronted by a natural disaster of the magnitude of a Cyclone Nargis. It would have been much better, not least for the survivors, if the government of Myanmar had recognized the value of an international presence from the start. I encourage Myanmar’s leaders to continue down the path of cooperation, including in response to other humanitarian challenges, based on the universal principle of the impartial provision of aid.”

When Holmes talks about a country’s inability to “go it alone,” he means that no country keeps on standby all of the specialized emergency assistance required following a natural disaster. It is simply too expensive for every country in the world to maintain such resources. Cooperation and collaboration are essential if a country wants to apply the greatest amount of specialized help in the shortest amount of time. This is a lesson that China learned following its earthquake disaster earlier this year.

“Second, we must stay focused on the goal: assisting people in crisis. From the first, the aid operation in Myanmar — as is true everywhere we work — had to be about helping vulnerable people in need, not about politics. In this post-Iraq age, I am concerned that humanitarians are often pressured to choose between the hammer of forced intervention and the anvil of perceived inaction. Was there a realistic alternative to the approach of persistent negotiation and dialogue that we pursued? I do not believe so. Nor have I met anyone engaged in the operations who believes that a different approach would have brought more aid to more people more quickly.”

There are really two lessons contained in Holmes’ second point. First, staying mission focused (by which he means assisting people in crisis) may or may not be perceived as impartial activity depending on the circumstances in which relief workers find themselves. Had the cyclone hit in an area primarily populated by a rebel group fighting the government, getting the people in crisis back on their feet would not be in the best interests of the government. Donald Daniel and Bradd Hayes call this “blind impartiality” because relief workers are impartial only to the mission at hand, regardless of the consequences to concerned parties. The other lesson contained in Holmes second point is that a lot of situations fall in between the use of force and complete inaction. These situations require what Daniel and Hayes call “coercive inducement,” in their book of same name. Coercive inducement can take many forms. The path pursued in this instance was “persistent negotiation.” Holmes doesn’t rule out the use of force as final option. He writes:

“This is not to say that there can never be a role for humanitarian intervention, even in natural disasters. But it must be the last resort, when all else has been tried and the only alternative is death and suffering on a mass scale.”

One of the reasons that humanitarian intervention is a last resort is because it violates the sovereignty of the target nation. Holmes continues with his lessons learned:

“Third, Nargis showed us a new model of humanitarian partnership, adding the special position and capabilities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to those of the United Nations in working effectively with the government. This may prove the most important — and, I hope, enduring — lesson of the cyclone response, with implications for how we respond, anywhere, in the future. ASEAN’s leadership was vital in building trust with the government and saving lives. In recent years, ASEAN members have significantly stepped up participation in the humanitarian arena. Given that eight of the 10 worst natural disasters last year occurred in Asia, this represents a lifesaving investment, where the United Nations is helping to build local capacity.”

The use of regional organizations in which the target state has a vested interest is all part of learning what kind of influence and inducements can used to get the target state to behave in manner desired by the international community. Holmes concludes:

“Fourth, Nargis demonstrated once again the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Simple, low-cost measures — local evacuation plans, shelters, community early-warning systems — have saved tens of thousands of lives in neighboring Bangladesh when it has been faced with similarly devastating cyclones. We need to help the people of Myanmar strengthen their resilience and reduce their vulnerability. Building back better, to minimize future disaster risks, is a top priority. In coming years we can expect to see more, and more intense, weather-related natural disasters as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. We must be better prepared and must cooperate as neighbors and an international community in meeting this challenge. The need for effective global humanitarian partnerships has never been more apparent — or more necessary.”

Whether consciously or not, Holmes uses a framework for resilience that I think should be used by all strategic planners. The framework forces one to examine what can be done at the individual level, the state level, and the system (or international) level. As a result, at the individual level Holmes writes about “help[ing] the people of Myanmar strengthen their resilience and reduce their vulnerability.” At the state level, Holmes talks about “evacuation plans, shelters, [and] community early-warning systems.” Finally at the system level, he concludes “we must be better prepared and must cooperate as neighbors and an international community.” Only by looking at all levels can we be reasonably assured that we are prepared as possible for future crises.