This year has been another big year for disasters. In our region there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, floods in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and the Christchurch earthquake. Closer to home, floods devastated much of eastern Australia, and we were reminded of the impact of Cyclone Yasi every time we shopped for bananas.
In the aftermath of disasters like these, the people and communities affected need urgent assistance, starting from the very basics such as food, water and shelter. Various groups are involved in these kinds of emergency responses, from aid agencies and affected communities themselves, to governments and defence forces.
But a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, More than good deeds, suggests a new vision for the military's role in disaster relief. Rather than simply supporting a civilian aid effort where it's needed and with a focus on saving lives, the institute's report suggests that military disaster relief should be seen as ''part of a smart power approach to foreign policy''.
The report says Australia, the United States and Japan should embrace their defence forces' involvement in disaster relief as a tool for building strategic alliances, demonstrating military might and advancing foreign policy and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
The military can and does play a vital role in disaster relief when the need has overwhelmed the capacity of the host government and its people. Military assets can be mobilised at short notice and with significant logistical capability to help complement a civilian response in the early stages. Furthermore, the professionalism and commitment of military officers in Australia is commendable and internationally regarded.
But the military is not built for aid delivery or emergency management. Its mission is national defence. As a result, military involvement in aid and disaster relief has often been criticised for failing to meet basic standards for effective and sustainable relief and assistance. In conflict zones, these effectiveness issues are particularly pronounced. From Afghanistan to Kenya, aid projects aimed at winning ''hearts and minds'' have proved ineffective, costly, and have sometimes turned aid workers - and the people and communities they are trying to help - into targets of attack.
The institute's report also highlights that compared with using defence forces in disaster operations overseas, ''cheaper, quicker and better outcomes may be achieved by using civil capabilities''. This was certainly the experience in Haiti after the earthquake last year, where foreign forces duplicated the delivery of assistance at more than 10 times the cost of aid agencies' programs. Why then would we invest in an increasingly militarised approach to disaster management?
The institute argues that the strategic benefits of engaging in these activities outweigh the costs - and governments should be upfront and unapologetic about their use of relief assistance in this way. As an organisation with more than 60 years' experience assisting disaster-affected communities around the world, Oxfam believes the humanitarian imperative of saving lives and alleviating suffering should come first when providing aid, and that aid relief should build sustainable outcomes.
As the Australian Government's response to the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness said, when it comes to humanitarian emergencies ''our goal for humanitarian action is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity''. What the institute's report demonstrates is that there is a worrying gulf between Australia's commitments to impartial disaster relief based on need, and the increasing political interests in using aid as a tool for foreign policy and security interests.
Australia is not alone in this politicised aid agenda. A recent World Bank study of nearly 500 natural disasters since 1992 found that major donors were between 24 and 46 percentage points more likely to provide humanitarian aid to natural disasters in oil-exporting countries than to similarly disaster-afflicted countries lacking oil exports. This skewed aid prioritisation can lead to some disaster responses getting more aid than is needed, while leaving other disaster-affected communities with little or no international support.
Donors, armed forces and aid organisations all have roles to play in responding to the rapidly escalating trend of climate-related disasters and human vulnerability to shocks and stresses. If the Australian Defence Force is to engage in disaster response activities it should do it well. At the very least it should do it in ways that do not cause harm.
Oxfam supports efforts to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the ADF's engagement in disaster operations, as long as these efforts are aimed at greater accountability to the Australian public and disaster-affected communities. Strategic goals of the ADF need not be mutually exclusive to wider aid effectiveness and humanitarian goals. There will be many times when doing the right thing - and being seen to do the right thing - is very strategic indeed.
But Australia's narrow foreign policy and security interests can't be the driving force behind its engagement in disaster management. Australia does itself no favours by giving only when it expects something in return.
Acting Executive Director
This opinion editorial was first published by The Canberra Times on Monday 12 December 2011.
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