Militaries must improve effectiveness in disaster relief efforts: Dr Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE- The increasing role of militaries in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts means that they need to improve their effectiveness in such efforts, said Dr Ng Eng Hen on Monday.

He was speaking at the opening ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit Global Forum on Humanitarian Civil-Military. The forum, co-hosted by Mindef and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will help to shape the discussions and agenda for the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul in May 2016.

More than 100 policy makers and operational experts from UN agencies, regional and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as defence establishments and national disaster management authorities from more than 25 countries are attending the three-day forum at the Changi Command and Control Centre at Changi Naval Base.

In his keynote address, Dr Ng noted how militaries have been increasingly deployed in multinational HADR efforts, citing how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has been deployed for 20 such missions in the last decade. These include flood relief efforts in Kelantan last December and this January, as well as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.

"But even if we accept that militaries need to respond for HADR missions, there is much scope to improve their effectiveness," added Dr Ng.

He also stressed the need for a clearly defined military doctrine for such efforts, or else these would run the risk of becoming "unsustainable, ineffective and inefficient".

Dr Ng proposed three broad parameters to guide military assistance for these efforts:

Firstly, militaries "should not replicate what civilian organisations can do better". He gave the example of military aircraft and ships transporting items like blankets and food, which made little financial sense as civilian agencies were more equipped to facilitate the purchase and distribution of these items.

Secondly, militaries "should confine themselves to critical windows of need in the immediate aftermath following disasters".

Lastly, militaries "need to build up information hubs and network with civilian organisations pre-emptively", to be more effective in their immediate responses and transition of operations to civilian agencies.

Dr Ng noted the SAF has made efforts in this area, by engaging with the Singapore Red Cross and Mercy Relief, and facilitating local think tanks such as the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies to provide thought leadership on humanitarian issues.

A Regional Consultative Group (RCG) on Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination for Asia and the Pacific has also been set up, with the introductory session on April 15.

"The RCG can contribute significantly to advancing the civil military coordination agenda in this region," added Dr Ng.