Oral statement to Parliament

Andrew Mitchell: The humanitarian response review

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Andrew Mitchell's oral statement to the House of Commons in response to the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR), 15 June 2011.

I should like to make a statement on the Government’s response, which I will publish in detail online later today, to the humanitarian and emergency response review carried out by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.

The Ashdown report is a deeply impressive document. It makes a compelling, clear and powerful case for reform. The Government agree with and endorse the review’s central thesis and will accept the vast majority of its specific recommendations. Indeed, in many areas we will go beyond its specific recommendations in order to drive faster improvement in the international response to disasters. I am extremely grateful to Lord Ashdown and his team for the work they have done to produce such a compelling and well-argued review. His formidable insight and experience shine through it. I am also grateful to all those who have taken the time and trouble to respond to the consultation and whose experience has added to the quality of the recommendations.

I pay tribute today to those Brits around the world who are working tirelessly in extreme circumstances to save lives during humanitarian crises. Their work, which is often unsung and undertaken at real personal risk, is truly heroic. I also pay tribute to the role of the British armed forces in responding to humanitarian emergencies. In Pakistan last year our armed forces provided swift and effective relief, flying in emergency bridges to reconnect families separated by the floods. In Haiti they brought life-saving equipment and supplies to those stricken by the earthquake.

The report sets a challenging agenda for the 21st century. It recognises that, although disasters are nothing new, we are experiencing a sudden increase in their intensity and frequency. It makes it clear that this trend will only grow with climate change, population growth and greater urbanisation. The review concluded that the Department for International Development has played a strong role in improving the quality of the wider international response. It is an area where Britain is well respected and well regarded, but there is no room for complacency, which is why I commissioned the review and why the Government will take action to implement it.

In the Government’s response to the review, I have set out how, in collaboration with others, we will rise to the challenges presented and how we will do even more to help people stricken by disasters and emergencies. There are some fundamental principles that will guide our response to humanitarian emergencies. First, we will continue to apply the core principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality to all Government humanitarian action. Secondly, we will respect, and promote respect for, international humanitarian law. Thirdly, and crucially, we will be motivated not by political, security or economic objectives, but by need and need alone.

We will deliver humanitarian assistance in three main ways. We will provide predictable support for our multilateral humanitarian partners, including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the United Nations. In humanitarian emergencies, where there is compelling and overwhelming need, we will provide additional resources to the international system, Governments, charities and non-governmental organisations. We will intervene directly where the UK can contribute in ways that others cannot or where there is substantial public interest in our doing so.

Let me turn to the detail of our response. Lord Ashdown’s report identifies seven specific themes: resilience, anticipation, leadership, innovation, accountability, partnership and humanitarian space. I will address each in turn. It is not enough for us simply to pick up the pieces once a disaster has struck. We need to help vulnerable communities to prepare for disasters and to become more resilient. That is where we can have most impact and where we can prevent lives from being lost. More resilient communities and countries will also recover faster from disaster. I commit DFID therefore to build resilience into all its country programmes.

We must anticipate and be prepared for disasters. We will work with Governments and the international system to become better at understanding where climate change, seismic activity, seasonal fluctuations and conflict will lead to humanitarian disasters. With others, we will set up a global risk register of those countries most at risk, so that the international effort can be more focused.

The review calls for stronger leadership by the international community. We strongly agree that the United Nations must be central to this, and I am extremely pleased that, under the leadership of the emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, the UN has already made that a priority. Britain will specifically back her agenda for change, but I accept that significant challenges remain. Members from all parts of the House need only look back to the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods to see examples of the United Nations failing to deliver the leadership that was badly needed, so we will work with other donors for much needed reforms.

The review highlights the role that innovation and science can play in every aspect of humanitarian response. We will establish an innovations team to embed humanitarian research and innovation in our core work.

We must always be accountable for and transparent about how we spend our development budget. It is taxpayers’ money. That duty of accountability extends not only to British citizens and taxpayers, but to those who depend upon our aid. We will therefore make accountability central to our humanitarian work and do more to measure our own impact and that of our partners.

Rarely is partnership more important than in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The strength and quality of that co-ordination can make the difference between life and death. We must therefore strive to develop stronger alliances, particularly with new donors, including the Gulf states, China and Brazil. We must improve the quality of our relationships with other key bilateral donors, making sure that our efforts are better co-ordinated and the burden of responsibility shared. I also want to involve fully charities, NGOs, faith groups, the diaspora and the private sector in our emergency response work.

The review calls for the protection and expansion of humanitarian space, including for people brutally affected by armed conflict. That is crucial to our aim of protecting civilians in conflict situations. We must make a consolidated effort throughout the Government, using all diplomatic, legal, humanitarian and military tools, to secure unfettered and immediate access for humanitarian relief wherever we can.

We recognise that to deliver this ambitious agenda, it is right that we change the way in which we fund the system, making it more effective and efficient, particularly in the first hours of an emergency. I have looked at the performance and efficiency that different humanitarian agencies offer. Many offer good value for money and have a sound track record in delivering results, saving lives and reducing suffering in some of the world’s most difficult places. Some, however, do not. I am therefore outlining today increased core support for the best performing humanitarian multilaterals. I have also commissioned detailed work to design a new facility that will enable prequalified charities and NGOs to respond to crises within the first 72 hours, and to design a new mechanism to support the strongest performing British charities to improve the timeliness and quality of responses to humanitarian causes. The Government will consult further on the details of those two instruments.

This country is a world leader in responding to humanitarian emergencies. By implementing Lord Ashdown’s recommendations, and by working alongside new partners, the private sector and other countries’ Governments, we can be even better. I want this House and this country to be proud of our efforts, knowing that we in Britain will be there when the disaster strikes.

Let me end with the words of a survivor of a cyclone in Haiti:

“The water started to rise, and it did not stop…the water was already so high and strong that I could not hold on to one of my children and the water swept her away. Luckily someone was there to grab her.”

I commend this statement to the House.