Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series is intended to explore measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), more than two million people (accounting for 56.6 percent of the global fatalities) in Asia and the Pacific lost their lives due to natural disasters from 1970 to 2014.[1] For many years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has invested a great deal of effort and resources to address issues of humanitarian action and disaster response (HA/DR) in the region. Thus, it is essential to discuss how ASEAN member countries have governed the HA/DR process in order to achieve the common objectives.

Governance Framework for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response in ASEAN

Governance of HA/DR includes institutions, formal and informal arrangements, structures, actors (public and private sectors, civil society, or the third sector), mechanisms and regulations that affect the HA/DR process, and other risk management related activities.[2] Given the multifaceted and complicated nature of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the governance framework for HA/DR in this article focuses exclusively on 1) the regulatory foundation, 2) key sectors and actors, 3) instruments to mobilize resources, and 4) coordination mechanisms.

1. The Regulatory Foundation

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanitarian activities should be “regulated by binding and non-binding international humanitarian and human rights law” as well as based on “the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.”[3] The “humanity principle” refers to those activities which can address human suffering in order to protect human beings’ welfare and well-being.[4] The “neutrality principle” encourages humanitarian players/actors to avoid hostilities or political, racial, ideological, and religious controversies when engaging in humanitarian related activities.[5] The “impartiality principle” refers to the fair treatment to all recipients regardless of their nationality, race, gender, religion, etc.[6] Finally, the “independence principle” signifies that humanitarian actors should carry humanitarian action autonomously without being influenced by any political, economic, military, ideological forces.[7]

In the context of ASEAN, the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) is considered as “a legally-binding, regional multi-hazard and policy framework for cooperation, coordination, technical assistance, and resource mobilization in all aspects of disaster management in the 10 ASEAN Member states.”[8] The AADMER aims to provide a collective framework for member countries to work cooperatively with one another with regards to disaster reduction and humanitarian relief.[9] There are also a number of non-binding agreements which are applicable to ASEAN member countries. For example, the Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) declares the right of the peoples residing in ASEAN countries to live in peace, dignity, and prosperity, and its main purpose is also to “contribute to ... the well-being, livelihood, welfare, and participation of ASEAN peoples in the ASEAN Community building process.”[10] Other examples include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the 1949 Geneva Conventions,[11] United Nations General Assembly resolution 46/1824,[12] the Kyoto Convention,[13] the “ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures for Regional Standby Agreements and Coordination of Joint Disaster Relief and Emergency Response Operations (SASOP),”[14] and the “World Customs Organization Resolution of the Customs Co-operation Council on the Role of Customs in Natural Disaster Relief.”[15]

2. Key Sectors and Actors

The key actors in HA/DR can be classified into four groups: 1) international governance bodies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, etc., 2) governments or the public sector, such as the national disaster risk reduction and management agencies of ASEAN member countries, 3) business or the private sector, and 4) civil society or non-governmental organizations, such as the International Red Cross.[16] These groups usually operate at four main levels, namely the local, national, regional, and international levels. Examples of various international civil society organizations involved in humanitarian action in ASEAN include “the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Pacific Disaster Centre, and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre.”[17] Some examples of national NGOs that are actively involved in humanitarian assistance are the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief & Refugees, the Human Development Forum Foundation, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, the Indonesian Society for Disaster Management, Amwin Al-Muayyad Windan, Al-Imdaad Foundation (Indonesia), HOPE Worldwide Indonesia, Mercy Malaysia, the Metta Development Foundation, and ADRA Myanmar.[18]

3. Instruments to Mobilize Resources

It is important to engage all groups of stakeholders in all sectors, especially at the community or grassroots level, in order to foster disaster resilience in member countries and improve the capacities for natural disaster responses and disaster risk and vulnerability evaluation.[19] Governments should also promote public-private partnerships (P.P.P.) in order to mobilize the resources possessed by different groups of stakeholders and expedite humanitarian responses.[20]

4. Coordination Mechanisms

As previously mentioned, HA/DR coordination mechanisms can operate at the national, regional, and international levels. For example, the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM), which comprises national disaster risk reduction and management bodies of member countries, plays a key role in coordinating humanitarian assistance related activities in ASEAN.[21] Another example is the ASEAN Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ERAT), which was deployed to support Myanmar during Cyclone Nargis in 2008.[22] There should be connections among these mechanisms, or “bridging mechanisms.”[23] The AHA Centre (an inter-governmental agency established by ASEAN member countries to coordinate humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response activities) devoted a great deal of effort to monitoring Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013 and broadcast important information to stakeholders in ASEAN via email alerts and various social media platforms.[24] For example, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force, and the Yangon-based Tripartite Core Group have coordinated the activities of international advisory groups, including U.N. staff and invited international organizations, donor countries, and the Myanmar Central Coordinating Board during the Cyclone Nargis.[25]

Overall, governance has been considered one of the critical success factors in HA/DR at all levels.[26] Thus, it is important for countries to strengthen their governance frameworks for disaster risk preparation, reduction, and management. Apart from governance perspectives, experts in the region have also proposed some “recommendations for strengthening humanitarian action in the ASEAN region if and when the ASEAN Secretariat and AHA Centre have the ability and resources to do so” during the March 2014 roundtable discussion in Jakarta.[27] These suggestions are included in Table 1.

Table 1. Recommendations to Strengthen Humanitarian Action in the ASEAN Region:[28]

► Provide fast track for humanitarian access.
► Seek ways to address protection without raising the ire of ASEAN member states.
► Enhance leadership on humanitarian response.
► Emphasize emergency preparedness, not just response.
► Create a technical information-sharing system.
► Establish a regional humanitarian network among academics/researchers.
► Facilitate and promote a role for business in crisis preparedness and response.
► Promote impact evaluations of humanitarian assistance.
► Rotate/Exchange national and regional experts.
► Recognize aid agency accreditation in a reciprocal manner.
► Support government agencies when they lead humanitarian coordination.

What is Applicable to the Middle East?

Countries in the Middle East may face similar challenges with regard to institutional arrangements, coordination, and stakeholders’ involvement. However, the magnitude of the challenges may be more profound given differences in the external environments (political, economic, socio-cultural, legal, technological, and environmental factors) of these countries. Therefore, the governance framework for H.A./D.R. must be selectively applied, i.e. various elements of the governance paradigm must be modified to suit the external and internal contingencies of a particular country.

Nevertheless, in addition to the above recommendations (Table 1), a few key principles should be applicable in all general cases, namely political and leadership commitment, the availability of resources (including experts, human capital, physical resources, time, etc.), and effective communication channels.

Furthermore, some of the recent efforts taken and progress made by ASEAN member countries to strengthen collective preparedness to respond to large-scale disasters could serve as an inspiration, if not a model, for their Middle Eastern counterparts. A case in point is the February 2016 workshop in Jakarta, where over 100 participants gathered for the purpose of developing a joint disaster risk management plan—an important milestone in their collective attempt to implement the “One ASEAN, One Response” vision and thereby “ensure a speedier and more effective delivery of emergency assistance in the region.”[29]


At the regional and national levels, institutional arrangements are in place in ASEAN member countries. The ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management has been instrumental in coordinating HA/DR-related activities among members. However, each country does have its own disaster management committee and national plans and strategies to address the issues associated with humanitarian action and disaster relief. Although the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response has been considered as a legal document to which ASEAN member countries should adhere, international and regional dialogues, discussions, and agreements have also played a role in improving the HA/DR process.

What is the way forward? There should be a clear governance framework at the international, regional, and national levels which states clearly the responsibility and accountability of key actors/sectors. Political willingness and trust among member countries should be enhanced, since the process of HA/DR should not be politicized given the urgency for an effective HA/DR plan at all levels. Multi-level governments should engage all sectors and all groups of stakeholders in each sector in order to mobilize social capital and physical resources to overcome the obstacles during the HA/DR process. Finally, financing has posed a great challenge for all countries, both in Asia and in the Middle East, in humanitarian assistance and disaster risk management related activities. Therefore, this should be a focus for further research on HA/DR.

[1] U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Overview of Natural Disasters and their Impacts in Asia and the Pacific, 1970–2014, March 5, 2015, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/Technical%20paper-Overview%2….

[2] R. Djalante, C. Holley, and F. Thomalla, “Adaptive Governance and Managing Resilience to Natural Hazards,” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 2, 4 (2011): 1–14; and C. Holley and D. Sinclair, “Collaborative Governance and Adaptive Management: (Mis)Applications to Groundwater Salinity and Run-Off,” The Australasian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy 14, 1 (2011): 37–69.

[3] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.), International Humanitarian Architecture (2013), para. 2, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.unocha.org/publications/asiadisasterresponse/InternationalHu….

[4] International Organisation for Migration (I.O.M.), IOM’S Humanitarian Policy–Principles for Humanitarian Action. Council 106th Session. October 12, 2015. C/106/CRP/20. Accessed June 3, 2016, https://governingbodies.iom.int/system/files/en/council/106/C-106-CRP-2….

[5] S. Ranganathan, “Reconceptualising the Boundaries of ‘Humanitarian’ Assistance: ‘What’s in a Name’ or ‘The Importance of Being “Earnest”’?” The John Marshall Law Review 40, 1 (2006): 196-233.

[6] K. Kraft, “Faith and Impartiality in Humanitarian Response: Lessons from Lebanese Evangelical Churches Providing Food Aid,” International Review of the Red Cross 97, 897/898 (2016): 395-421.

[7] UNOCHA, International Humanitarian Architecture.

[8] Ibid.

[9] M.E. Reza, “ASEAN’s Evolution in Disaster Management,” Articlesbase.com, October 26, 2009, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.articlesbase.com/politics-articles/aseans-evolution-in-disas…; and I.A. Kuntjoro and M. Caballero-Anthony, “Implementation of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response,” NTS Alert, September 2010, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/rsis/nts/HTML-Newsletter/alert/NTS-alert-sep-100….

[10] American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, “Experts’ Note on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration” (May 2012) 8, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/directories/roli/asean/asia_…..

[11] Ibid.                                                                

[12] UNOCHA, International Humanitarian Architecture.

[13] R. Turner, “Barriers to Customs Entry at the Time of Disaster in Developing Countries: Mitigating the Delay of Life-saving Materials,” World Customs Journal 9, 1 (2015): 1-13.

[14] L. Fan and H.B. Krebs, Regional Organisations and Humanitarian Action: The Case of ASEAN (London: Humanitarian Policy Group Overseas Development Institute, 2014) 4.                                                   

[15] UNOCHA, International Humanitarian Architecture.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Fan and Krebs, Regional Organisations and Humanitarian Action: The Case of ASEAN. 1.

[18] Y. Osa, “The Growing Role of NGOs in Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance in East Asia,” in R. Sukma and J. Gannon, eds., A Growing Force: Civil Society's Role in Asian Regional Security. (Tokyo: Japan Centre for International Exchange, 2013) 66-89.

[19] The World Bank, Improving the Assessment of Disaster Risks to Strengthen Financial Resilience: A Special Joint G20 Publication by the Government of Mexico and the World Bank (2012), accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.gfdrr.org/sites/gfdrr.org/files/Overview_Message_from_G20_Pr….

[20] Asian Disaster Reduction Centre, Promoting Public Private Partnership in Disaster Risk Reduction Japanese Cases (2007), accessed June 3, 2017, http://www.adrc.asia/publications/psdrr/pdf/PPP-Finalized.pdf.

[21] Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Joint Statement by the ASEAN Committee in Disaster Management for the Second Session of the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. Geneva, June 16-19, 2009. Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.prevention web.net/files/globalplatform/GP09ASEANStatement.pdf.

[22] Fan and Krebs, Regional Organisations and Humanitarian Action: The Case of ASEAN.

[23] UNOCHA, International Humanitarian Architecture.

[24] S.A. Zyck, L. Fan, and C. Price, ASEAN and humanitarian action: progress and potential. (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2014).

[25] Fan and Krebs, Regional Organisations and Humanitarian Action: The Case of ASEAN.

[26] M. Gall, S.L. Cutter, and K. Nguyen, Governance in Disaster Risk Management. Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) AIRDR Project Report No. 3. Beijing: Integrated Research on Disaster Risk. July 2014. Accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.irdrinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/AIRDR-Project-Report-No.-3-WEB-6MB.pdf; and UN Development Programme (UNDP), Strengthening Disaster Risk Governance: UNDP Support during the HFA Implementation Period 2005-2015. New York: UNDP, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library/crisis%20prevention/disast….

[27] Zyck, Fan, and Price. ASEAN and Humanitarian Action: Progress and Potential. 4.

[28] Ibid., 4-6.

[29] S. Siswo, “ASEAN Develops Joint Disaster Response Plan for Better Emergency Aid,” Channel NewsAsia, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/ asean-develops-joint/2548678.html.


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