The Indian Ocean earthquake and its aftermath have taken the lives of more than 120,000 people, and displaced and impoverished very many more. Because of the speed and reach of global communications, and the involvement of Western tourists, people across the world have seen the pictures and responded with great generosity. Public opinion has forced governments into an auction of promises - although, of course, the funds will mostly come from existing aid budgets and imply no overall increase in available resources.
But it did not take long for the debate to turn to criticism of the United Nations. Commentators have suggested that the UN is failing in Darfur, failed in Rwanda, should have dealt better with Saddam Hussein and has no moral authority because of corruption in the oil for food programme.
All of these claims are, at best, hopelessly ill informed. It is the Security Council which is responsible for the failure to send sufficient peace-keepers to stop the violence in Darfur, the Security Council that refused to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide and the Security Council that prolonged sanctions in Iraq. And it was the Security Council's Sanctions Committee, which was dominated by the US and the UK, that failed to take action against the widespread reports of corruption in the oil for food programme.
These failures are the responsibility of the permanent members of the Security Council and not of the UN agencies or its systems for responding to humanitarian emergencies. But these criticisms are tossed about by a hungry media which instantly picks up and spreads the most outrageous criticisms and thus undermines confidence in, and respect for, the UN. And President Bush, visibly irritated by a comment from the UN Undersecretary General for humanitarian affairs that wealthy countries were "stingy" towards impoverished nations, announced a new co-ordination mechanism for international action.
In the middle of an extremely complex emergency, he tells us that the US, Australia, Japan and India will co-ordinate the international response. None of these countries has a strong record in responding to international emergencies, although India takes pride in its capacity to deal with its own problems. This proposal is likely to complicate rather than help international co-ordination. Efforts are now under way to try to ensure that the coalition of four will work with the UN, but it is hard to see where the proposal came from, apart from yet another US attempt to snub the UN.
I find this growing appetite for UN bashing very worrying. In a period of growing international disorder, humanitarian crisis and environmental threat, there is a major push by the world's strongest power to undermine the only system we have for taking co-ordinated action to enforce peace, respond to humanitarian crisis and reach environmental agreements.
There is no doubt that the slow and bureaucratic UN system, that helped prevent the Cold War turning hot, requires reform to respond to current needs. But Kofi Annan, who was appointed as the reforming Secretary General favoured by the US, has delivered major reform. If we undermine the only legitimate international system we have, we are left with a world in which might is right and where we diminish our ability to respond to the problems of poverty, disorder and environmental degradation that are a major threat to our future.
Those who seek to undermine the UN role in the international humanitarian system would be wise to pause to consider the scale of the crisis that the system is required to manage in the disorder of the post-Cold War world. On any day during the last decade, humanitarian organisations have been trying to get relief to people in up to 50 places around the world. More than four million people have been killed in violent conflicts since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Natural disasters, even before this catastrophe, have caused the deaths of more than 150,000 in eight years. At any point in the last decade, more than 100 million people will be living lives blighted by conflict and natural disaster. Around 35 million people were displaced from their homes. Overwhelmingly, those affected by the disasters live in developing countries.
In the face of this growing need, spending on humanitarian systems has doubled from 1990 to reach as much as $6bn per annum. This spending amounts to 20 cents out of every $1,000 of GDP in the OECD countries whose average per capita income increased from $21,000 to $28,000 over the last decade.
Spending on humanitarian crises comes from aid budgets, and takes about 10 per cent of the total OECD aid spend. At a time of calls for increased co-ordination, less and less of the money available has been channelled through UN mechanisms. The result has been a proliferation of actors and an allocation system where the emergencies that can grab media attention obtain funding while others are marginalised and neglected. In addition, there has been a politicisation of humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has led to a growing loss of life among humanitarian workers and an undermining of the sacred humanitarian principle of impartiality.
Despite all of this, there has been a considerable investment in improving UN co-ordination and a big improvement in effectiveness. The system can, of course, be improved further, but without the UN, we will go back to each country flying in whatever they fancy with chaos at airports and surpluses and shortages of crucial supplies. And with the announcement of the Colin Powell-Jeb Bush tour, we see the first group of politicians flying in to grab headlines and get in the way.
In fact, the most important humanitarian response starts in the country itself. Chances of survival in any emergency depends on action in the first 24-48 hours, and in this time scale the response is local. Thus, strengthening local capacity in crisis-prone regions is the priority.
The Red Cross and the Red Crescent have been working across the world to help build this capacity in local associations, and there has been an increased effort to build regional co-operation. This is crucial work because we are set to face growing numbers of humanitarian crises, with the growth of disorder and the increased turbulence in weather patterns that comes with global warming. On top of this, growing population means more people living on marginal land and, therefore, higher numbers of casualties in any emergency.
Of course, more crises in Florida or Japan mean some loss of life and the costs of reconstruction, but wealthy countries minimise casualties and quickly recover. It's the poor of the world who are bearing the brunt of the mounting crises. They are more vulnerable to begin with and find it more difficult to recover.
At a time when the world faces terrible challenges, of poverty, disorder and environmental degradation, there is a real danger that the US government is consistently undermining the only legitimate system of international co-operation that we have. And because the UK sees the US alliance as its foreign policy priority, we are increasingly part of the problem rather than the solution.
The author was International Development Secretary, 1997-2003Reuse content