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Natural Disasters In Developing Countries
15 January 2001
Volume 620

2.50 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

What specific action they will take to reduce the impact of natural disasters on developing countries, in the light of the White Paper on international development (Cm 5006).

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My Lords, the Department for International Development is working to strengthen the UN-led International Strategy for Disaster Reduction as well as incorporating disaster preparedness and mitigation objectives into individual country programmes. Reducing risks and hazards, building capacity to withstand sudden shocks, as well as strengthening local arrangements for responding effectively when disaster strikes, are all essential aspects of our support for developing countries.

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My Lords, will the Government help to ensure that, when working with the international strategy for disaster reduction, all the UN agencies will work hard on the question of the prevention of disasters? As we saw so tragically during the recent events in El Salvador, planning, technology and training might have helped. Will the Government also ensure that they make maximum use of UK technology and capability in this area, where we certainly have a great deal to offer?

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My Lords, I should like, first, to join my noble friend in expressing regret about the tragedy resulting from the earthquake in El Salvador. As regards the detail of my noble friend's question, the International Strategy on Disaster Reduction is a new mechanism which was set up following the International Decade for Disaster Reduction. We are working with the UN Secretariat to ensure that it adds value to the mechanisms which are already in place. Recently we received the 2001 work programme for ISDR and we shall consider it as a part of our strategy to enhance disaster reduction efforts through international organisations and networks. My noble friend may also be aware that, as a part of our effort to ensure the effectiveness of UN activities, our strategic partnership with the Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs seeks to strengthen that UN system as a whole. We shall continue to ensure that, through using UK technology, we work to develop disaster preparedness and prevention.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of Plan International. Does the Minister agree that two impacts result from any natural disaster? The first is the immediate impact at the time, when often many lives are lost. However, the impact continues long after the event and the delivery of immediate relief. Many NGOs—l should point out that the Department for International Development has been extremely helpful in assisting here—are required to go in after the event to rebuild stable lives for people, thus enabling them to return to what was their normal way of life before the disaster.

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My Lords, I agree entirely with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. When a crisis strikes, immediate needs must be met. The humanitarian department of the Department for International Development deals with that aspect. However, the noble Baroness will be aware of our long-term strategy, which seeks to build sustainability in the countries in which we are working. That is why our strategy embraces working with countries to ensure that, as a part of their own planning, they incorporate issues surrounding disaster preparedness and mitigation.

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My Lords, perhaps I may start by commending the swift reaction of the DfID to the crisis in El Salvador. I believe that representatives are already undertaking work in the region. However, is it not now time to look at responses towards debt reduction? Many small countries that are hit by disasters bear unsustainable debt. Would it not be a welcome initiative to look at the immediate suspension of debt to the Bretton Woods institutions rather than providing aid?

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My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his comments as regards DfID staff who have been working around the clock since we learned of the earthquake in El Salvador. As regards debt relief, the noble Lord will be aware that we have played a central role in the HIPC initiative by working with the World Bank and other Paris Club members to hasten the process of debt relief. Indeed, at the end of last year, not only did we meet our target of 20 countries receiving interim relief, but we exceeded it; 22 countries qualified.

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My Lords, this Question is timely and will be addressed more fully in the Statement to be taken later. However, I should like the Minister to respond to a more general point. Why is there no mention at all in the Government White Paper, Eliminating World Poverty, of disaster relief or emergency responses? Furthermore, when shall we be able to hold a debate on this extremely important subject?

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My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness may not have looked at the White Paper in detail. There is a reference in the paper to disaster preparedness. Indeed, I could read out the reference if that would be of help. I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness with the details of that. As regards a debate in this House, I am aware that discussions are taking place through the usual channels.

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My Lords, in light of the present disaster in central America, and in view of the efforts made and help given following the devastation resulting from Hurricane Mitch in the same area—help given not only by the British Government but also by many NGOs—can the noble Baroness tell the House what steps were taken to monitor that aid effort? What kind of feedback was received from those working on the ground in order to ensure that procedures could be improved and that we were able to learn from that experience?

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My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that, since Hurricane Mitch, we have been working in the area and looking at the issues around disaster preparedness and mitigation. I shall write to the noble Baroness with further details on that point. As regards the monitoring of aid efforts, the noble Baroness may recall that some concerns were expressed, not about the emergency response, but about the delivery of some of the long-term aid which had been promised, in particular by the European Union. I can say to the noble Baroness that some delay has occurred with respect to that. However, some of the mechanisms within the European Commission have been improved as a result of pressure from member governments, including our Government. We hope that such delays will not occur again.

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My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the efforts of Her Majesty's Government, and in particular of her department, in connection with the scale of overseas aid, are very much appreciated? Will she bear in mind that the actions of the Commission have already been commented on by the "three wise men" established to investigate fraud and irregularity, some cases of which lie with the department in the Commission responsible for its share of overseas aid?

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his positive comments on the work of the department. Perhaps I may repeat that the Department for International Development is working hard to improve the performance of the EC. Recently, member states held meetings with EU officials. We are putting in place mechanisms which will enable us to monitor how effectively and quickly money is being spent.

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My Lords, returning to the original supplementary question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, concerning the response of the United Nations, does the noble Baroness agree that the history of the UN response to emergencies has itself at times been a disaster? Have we improved our international response at the UN level as well as at the level of individual countries?

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My Lords, we have been working hard to improve the response made at UN level, not only through OCHA, but also through the new mechanism of ISDR which has recently been established. We are looking at the workplans set up by ISDR, as well as assessing what the Office of Humanitarian Affairs is attempting to do, to see how those efforts can best be complemented. The noble Earl may also be aware that the World Bank has set up a prevention consortium. This brings together a key group of stakeholders—businesses and NGOs as well as governments across the world—to see how best humanitarian activities can be co-ordinated.