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Dr Joost Herman: ‘Disaster and conflict prevention always gives a good return on investment’

07 December 2011

Cutbacks in spending on disaster relief and development aid will cost the Netherlands a lot of money in the long run, thinks Joost Herman, University Reader in International Relations and International Organization at the University of Groningen. Not only does Herman want to keep the current budget for development aid, he also wants to see a larger portion of the resources for disaster relief spent on programmes aimed at preventing natural disasters and armed conflicts.

Joost Herman
Joost Herman

‘It is much cheaper to invest in such programmes rather than expensive emergency relief operations and costly peacekeeping missions’, says Herman. ‘Not to mention the moral aspects of cutting back on development aid. Moreover, this way we can ensure that the Dutch business community does not lose access to markets in these countries and that our prominent position in the world of international relations is not damaged.’ Herman made these comments on the occasion of the forum on aid effectiveness held recently in the South Korean city of Busan, where the international aid community agreed to cooperate more closely.

More and larger natural disasters

The background to Herman’s remarks is the expectation that climate change will lead to more frequent occurrences of major floods, devastating hurricanes, long-lasting droughts and other catastrophes. Moreover, these natural disasters will be more serious than in the past. Herman: ‘The disasters in the affected zones will be larger, last longer and the consequences will be more far-reaching and so the need for emergency aid will increase drastically during the coming decades.’

Source of conflict

Alongside the immediate effects of climate change, such as the human misery and damage to crops, villages, cities and infrastructure, it will also result in mass migration away from the affected regions. Herman: ‘Natural disasters are also a source of conflict. When crops fail and water reservoirs dry up, people set off in search of other resources, and food and water. Migration triggered by scarcity will in turn lead to more armed conflicts.’

Herman points to the violent confrontation in Darfur as one of the first climate-related conflicts. Without focused and coordinated international policies aimed at prevention, such conflicts will occur more and more often, he predicts. In their turn, local and regional armed conflicts can also lead to mass migrations. ‘And so it becomes a vicious circle. It will result in even more conflicts than the world presently has to deal with’, according to Herman. ‘The Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence are studying the military consequences of mass migration with good reason.’

Emergency aid is crucial

Emergency aid remains crucial for alleviating the initial effects of a disaster, says Herman. ‘However, I argue that a much larger proportion of the money that is spent on emergency aid today, some nine billion dollars, should be reserved for programmes aimed at preventing natural disasters and armed conflicts.’ Herman points out that the costs of emergency aid programmes and military missions are easily a factor ten greater than those of preventative programmes. In other words, prevention is better than the cure, he says. ‘But it’s a tough issue, because it needs political will and international solidarity. It requires foresight and the willingness to invest in the long term.’

Indonesia a good example

To achieve this goal, better use needs to be made of the available local resources and knowledge. ‘People who live in disaster-prone regions know full well how to prepare for disasters, how to make their communities more resilient and how to go about disaster relief’, explains Herman. Indonesia is a good example of how a country can effectively handle disasters. Herman: ‘Strengthening local structures is more effective than using an imported relief aid model. The University of Groningen is helping with this, for example through its participation in the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, which aims to create food security for the long term.’

Self-interest

Many countries – and this certainly applies to the Netherlands too, believes Herman – are ignoring the insights on the effects of preventative programmes. ‘It’s very worrying’, he says. ‘The present cabinet thinks that poor countries need to fend for themselves more, that emerging economies such as China and Brazil need to do more and that the private sector needs to play a role too. Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation Ben Knapen believes that ‘classic’ development aid is a thing of the past. The emphasis is shifting towards more self-interest: what’s in it for us? The awareness that we, with all our wealth, have a moral obligation to help the poorer countries has been pushed right to the background.’

Not a good choice

What the Netherlands is doing now, retreating behind its dykes, is not a good choice, thinks Herman. ‘Sooner or later, trouble will strike’, he asserts. ‘For example, climate-related conflicts will result in waves of asylum seekers and market positions in the affected countries will be taken over by others. And then we’ll be licking our wounds and complaining.’ The diplomatic efforts of the late Max van der Stoel are proof that conflict prevention reaps rewards in more ways than one, Herman remarks. In the early 1990s, when he was the High Commissioner for National Minorities for the OSCE, this Dutch politician declared that he could prevent tens of conflicts, primarily in the former Eastern Bloc, for the price of a single F16. And he was proved right.

Narrow-minded

International political action of this sort simply lacks support in the present-day Netherlands, declares Herman. And because the Netherlands is in no way unique in its outlook, there is no internationally coordinated policy being established elsewhere either. Herman: ‘International solidarity was always a cornerstone of the Netherlands’ policy. However, it is now crumbling away. And countries like Denmark and France are more focused on domestic affairs now too.’ The discussion on emergency and development aid has become ‘very narrow-minded’ in the Netherlands thanks to the role of the PVV (the party that lends its support to the present coalition), believes Herman. ‘The current policy amounts to the Netherlands first and the rest after. This is short-sighted and foolish.’

Curriculum Vitae

Joost Herman (Haarlem, 1963) studied History and International Law in Leiden and conducted PhD research at the Institute for Human Rights at Utrecht University into the protection of minority groups in Central and Eastern Europe. He joined the University of Groningen in 1995 and became University Reader in International Relations and International Organization in 2003. He is one of the founders of the international Master’s degree programme Network On Humanitarian Action (NOHA) and financial director of the NOHA Network. He has led the Globalisation Studies Groningen institute since 2011.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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