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MSG disaster response force? Not likely

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22 March 2013 11:33

Donald Gumbis is a lecturer in political science at the University of Goroka and an intern at the Lowy Institute.

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare used the occasion of his visit to Fiji for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Melanesian Spearhead Group to propose the establishment of a regional humanitarian and disaster response force. Although Sir Michael has no authority now to be making this kind of proposal on behalf of the PNG Government, he may have been politely reminding the MSG that this idea was first approved back in 2003. In 2005 MSG leaders tasked PNG with submitting a detailed proposal for the force.

For a revitalised MSG given energy by a Fiji Government seeking to bolster its regional leadership claims, this concept will have attractions. A regional response force would be a visible demonstration of the united strength of the individual members of the MSG and set them apart from the rest of the Pacific Islands region.

But it will not work. The MSG does not have the means to pool its finances or assets. Most of its members have a record of below par coordination by in-country disaster management offices and trained response personnel. To establish a humanitarian/disaster response force, each MSG state would need to utilise its security forces in varying degrees, but there is a considerable disparity in each country's capacity here, with neither Vanuatu nor Solomon Islands having military forces. The MSG would also need to pool substantial funding for such an exercise.

As all members of the MSG have sought international assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters in recent history, their capacity to come up with their own funding and assets to respond to disasters must be questioned.

Even Fiji, where the military is the government and has reasonable coordination mechanisms, requires foreign assistance to deal with cyclones and floods.

The PNG Defence Force is having a trying time managing its internal affairs and border issues and has struggled with responses to previous natural disasters. This case of disaster management and response in PNG highlights its ineffectiveness and poorly coordinated response units. The Solomon Islands police force is still rebuilding with RAMSI expertise. Vanuatu's police force and paramilitary forces lack resources.

A summary by ReliefWeb highlights the multiple disasters, such as floods, that PNG is likely to face in 2013. Natural disasters have very serious impacts on Pacific Island countries. No national government is likely to have adequate resources to provide either immediate or longer-term relief to affected communities and needs to work with international partners like Australia, New Zealand and France (which coordinate rapid responses to disasters via their FRANZ group) and NGOs such as the Red Cross.

If an MSG force is to lead a humanitarian response force, the response time would be longer, and essential services would reach those in remote locations at a snail's pace. Logistical organisation is a huge challenge for the MSG states.

Disaster management is best left with individual national planning disaster offices in MSG countries to deal with in cooperation with donor partners and NGOs. International humanitarian organisations have assets, planning procedures and are much better placed to deal with disasters in the Pacific, including MSG states.

The MSG's current primary focus is on trade, and it must remain so until it builds a substantial financial asset to engage in a regional humanitarian response venture, as it requires millions of dollars. The leaders perhaps have already tacitly acknowledged this, given the 2012 MSG Leaders' Summit did not record a discussion of this issue as part of its 20-point communique.

Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

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