Today while driving around on errands, I heard some Irish (?) aid worker in the Sri Lanka area lambasting the UN for its ineptness. His point was that in relief and rescue work, just like in the military, logisitics is the key. And, whatever its other many failings, the UN has completely screwed the pooch on logistics, not just in the latest southeast Asia crisis, but overall, in completely failing to have developed some sort of logistics force that can be called on to spring into immediate action and get needed relief supplies on the move. I have mentioned this before in connection with the Sudan and the Dafur mess. I saw it in operation in the Balkans.
The UN seems incapable of learning from its past failings. Why are there not ships preloaded with the sorts of emergency equipment that might be needed if a major earthquake hits Japan or the Philippines or Nicaragua? Why does the UN not have the humanitarian equivalent of the U.S. military's prepositioned ships? Load up their hulls with water purifiers, medicine, cranes, backhoes, fuel, generators, tents, food, heavy lift vehicles, jeeps, helicopters, field hospitals, etc. Then wait for the inevitable disaster. Have two or three sets of ships - South America, Asia, Africa.
Surely the expense is well within the budgets of the nations who support the UN. If such a system were in place, the only issues would be sailing the ships and arranging to have the necessary aid personnel arrive to marry up with their equipment. Instead, we have the incredible delays caused by the UN having to seek emergency funding from donor nations and then arranging for ships and then loading the ships and then sailing the ships. The transit time from the US to Sri Lanka is probably close to 3 weeks (8100 nautical miles/20 knots=405 hours/24hours=17 days). From Singapore- (1470nm/20=74 hours/24= a little over 3 days). If the ships can go 20 knots.
In the meantime, relief supplies trickle in by air (trust me, one ship carries a whole lot more that even the biggest aircraft) and we see harried aid workers wondering when the real supplies will arrive. The good news for the helpers and the helpees is that the US Navy is sending some ships their direction.
Which raises another sore point that the Irish aid worker was exactly right about. Where is Kofi Annan? Why is he not exerting leadership and driving the problem? President Bush gets dinged by the Washington Post for allegedly not being "sensitive" by continuing on his vacation at his ranch (accompanied by enough electronic gizmos to run the government from where he is) - but where is any sign of leadership from Mr. Annan? Instead of showing any leadership, he runs out a minion to criticize how "stingy" the West is being.
Boo! Fire the bastards and get some adult leadership over there.
Surely the idea that disasters occur on a regular basis can be the basis for planning a better policy than that we see playing out now.
Update: Our Canadian friends are having logistics troubles of their own. See the excellent blog Strong and Free here for a biting assessment of what happens when you let your logistics force deteriorate - you get to sit at home when you could be doing good somewhere.
Update2: British Red Cross sends in its logisticians -
The logistics Emergency Response Unit will coordinate the arrival of all the Red Cross relief goods being sent to the island, and ensure they are distributed efficiently to the people who need help the most urgently.
The charter flight will contain vehicles, a forklift truck, generators, tents and all the equipment the team needs to set up a mobile office. It allows the ERU to be completely self-sufficient in disaster areas where resources, infrastructure and communications have been destroyed.