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Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

Posted: August 25, 2010 08:20 AM

The World's Biggest Emergency

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We can't carry on like this: an emergency of incredible proportions only half funded; vital days used up talking about aid fatigue -- and what we have not done -- instead of urgent need -- what we now have to do.

The Pakistan floods are the world's biggest emergency -- 60,000 square miles under water, 20 million people displaced, 14 million in need of emergency health care, six million short of food, two and a half million homeless. It is a tragedy whose book of names of lives lost, presumed dead, will never be complete. And my abiding image is of the outstretched hand of a young child begging for food that will arrive too late.

Too many are without help and also without hope. And the worst condition of all is sorrow without hope, pain without end, suffering without relief. In my view four steps must be taken urgently. Every country should commit this week to double its aid and offer to match private contributions dollar for dollar. With president Zardari's agreement governments should offer military as well as civilian support to repair the damage. Governments must now agree to pre-finance the Central Emergency Response Fund. We should agree on the need for a new UN civilian reconstruction agency drawing on the world's engineers, builders and public health workers to repair bridges, roads, houses, schools and farms.

Of course I understand that this time the destruction has come not in a few cataclysmic moments or hours, but over many days in a relentless and rising tide of catastrophe. And so this is a tragedy compounded by paradox. For while the scale of the casualties gets greater and greater, the steadily evolving nature of this crisis -- the spreading floods, the constantly higher water levels, the gathering hunger crisis -- have made the sense of emergency seem less.

The crisis did not appear in a flash that shocked the world's conscience; but it must now command the world's most urgent resolve.

We know Pakistan cannot cope on its own. UN agencies, global aid organizations and individual governments have provided food rations for one million of the hungry, and one million of the homeless have some kind of shelter. But the need is so much more and the lives, livelihoods and health of millions more hang in the balance. A crisis this great demands what President Kennedy called "A grand and global alliance...against the common enemies of man."

First the way to help all aid organizations on the ground move more aid further and more quickly is to send a signal of enhanced help now and in weeks to come: to announce both an immediate doubling of aid contributions and that governments will match dollar for dollar every dollar donated privately to the organizations on the ground. Potential donors should be reminded constantly that one payment of $25 will feed a family of six for a week and one payment of $250 could house a family long into the future. And we should not say this once, but over and over. Attention must be paid for as long as the crisis lasts and the recovery takes.

Second, mobilization of the scale of aid we need requires not just civilian organizations, but the armies and air forces of the world bringing not weapons but sustenance. And while they must respect the independence of the humanitarian agencies, only they can provide the heavy lift capacity that is needed. The reconstruction work still to be done in Haiti is not an excuse: a world that can fight so many wars simultaneously can answer two great crises at the same time.

Third we must support the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund with greater backstop reserves to provide immediate help without waiting for the usual whip-round of nations. Because this is not the first nor the last of sudden emergencies, we need to properly pre-fund this agency without delay.

Fourth, schools and hospitals, canals, roads and communications must all be repaired. This requires expertise as well as resources. I have proposed a global reconstruction corps to offer civilian help -- engineers, doctors, builders -- to build homes, rebuild the schools, staff the hospitals and get agriculture and industry moving again. We have set up a British corps -- and a global volunteer corps is more important and imperative than ever. To make it effective on the ground in Pakistan we need of course an agreement with all Pakistani parties that they will use and work with a Reconstruction Corps.

But we do have to ask ourselves one big question: If we cannot be moved to do more when 20 million people are stranded, some under water, all homeless, then when will be do more? If we cannot the answer the summons of a global ethic that, no matter how distant we are all neighbors -- if we cannot see that when we see people dying on our TV screens -- when will we as a global community rise to our shared humanity? In words we have heard before, if not now, when? and where and how?