Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

How do you prepare for extreme societal dislocations?

Posted in business and convergent technologies, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 23, 2010

One of my colleagues in the UN-GAID networking group, their Champions Network raised some interesting and even disturbing questions in an email to me regarding our collective effort to more effectively respond to disasters. We have been discussing how to better organize within the UN-GAID community and we have discussed issues related to working more effectively in the UN context and as a component to its overall emergency response and relief efforts. This discussion has also started to explore issues related to reaching out to NGO’s and other organizations and to local and national governments. But the United Nations is geared almost entirely towards working with nations and their governments, and as sovereign entities that are and that remain firmly in control of their territory and of events taking place within it.

When the Port au Prince earthquake hit virtually every government building was damaged if not destroyed. Fortunately, the President of Haiti was able to announce soon after the earthquake that while the presidential palace was heavily damaged and even currently uninhabitable he was still alive and able to carry out his duties and responsibilities. But what would have happened if he and his senior governmental leadership were suddenly absent, or at least out of communication and unreachable? I would raise this as a question of importance for a lot more than just the one small part of the overall United Nations organization that I happen to participate with.

Quite simply I do not know that any UN agency or organization has plans ready and in place for dealing with that level and type of situation, and add that any such planning would have to come from the level of the Secretary General and with the approval and involvement of the Security Council and probably the entire General Assembly. Quite simply, the more severe the dislocation to ongoing governance and chain of command and authority in the area affected by a disaster, the more important that there be close coordination in responses taken, and preplanning as to what would be done and by whom and under what authority. Coordination and organization would make all the difference and for a great many lives.

I drafted the following list of discussion points with a much more focused and preliminary intent than attempting to outline the processes for a comprehensive and leading response to disaster, and did so with UN-GAID and its Champions Network in mind. I share these notes here in this context of pointing out a need for a much more comprehensive and much more collective planning effort.

1. “When the government that would have to be worked with is itself so significantly affected as to be unable to function, one key role that outside services could provide would be assistance reestablishing communications, etc. The issue here would not be one of “this is what needs to be done and this is how we are doing it” but rather one of “here are communications and other resources to help you get back on your feet and online and in control of the situation. Now, what can we do to help you?”

2. “I am fairly sure that the UN leadership at its senior level would be more than just reluctant to in any way act in a manner that could be viewed as usurping sovereign national authority, but acting in support of such authority and helping it reestablish itself as a working entity would be supported so long as actions taken met UN charter, treaty and other guidelines. The signatory member nations that are part of the UN and that constitute its authority would all side with supporting and against supplanting national authority and would err on the side of not even allowing for possible perception of trying to take over.

3. “I would like to learn more about the ITU and its response to this crisis. My interest definitely involves better understanding that organization and its capabilities and its area of effective action. I also see this as a potential source of best practices for UN-GAID and the Champions Network to learn from. (N.B. The ITU is actively involved in this relief effort and it is important for all groups and organizations to learn from each other in preparing to more effectively contribute.)

4. “Whatever else might be said about a military organization stepping in to manage a crisis and restore order, and this can be a tender topic for some countries, the Pakistani army is a Pakistani organization, internal to that country. That gives it an entirely different standing and both within the country and outside of it than any external effort would engender. (N.B. This point was added in response to notes shared regarding that organization’s role in assisting and resolving disaster in their country and as a military organization.)

5. “Timing is everything here, and both for start of assistance and for duration of assistance. I will add that how any authority or control is handed over to local and national authority is very important in all of this, as the goal has to transparently in services rendered and their effectiveness, and in restoring local management and control.

6. “The real problem would be where devastation was so complete as to effectively decapitate the government. The president of Haiti lost both his own home and the presidential palace but he was at least still there to share word of this with the world — and quickly after the quake happened.

7. “Any steering committee from the UN-GAID Champions Network has to work closely with both GAID leadership and with the larger organization as it is all but certain that no one has really planned for anything even beginning to approach worst case, and even with more limited disasters there are a lot of gaps. Just look at the delays for recent disasters we have all seen.

8. “I understand how the official position for an organization – an alliance like UN-GAID would focus its efforts in the direction of facilitating efforts by the Champions Network, but we need to coordinate and not just on ICT issues, as ICT cannot make any sense or offer any value if simply considered and provided in an otherwise vacuum. This connects directly with my point 7, above.

“Please feel free to share this email with others as you see fit and thank you for your thoughtful participation in this and for reaching out to include others in it. Right now, my concern is in getting this steering committee set up and running. What are your thoughts as to first/next steps? I will call Roberto on Monday and see what I can do in coordination with his office.”

The basic thrust of this posting is a need to consider and prepare for the events and possibilities that we would most wish to avoid, least we be overcome by events if anything like them were to happen. Planning and preparation are crucial in advance of any such event and communications and networking would be of central importance in making any such plans work. Here, the key would be in wireless and satellite communications and in ubiquitous computing and communications. Consider Haiti here where the main undersea communications cable to the country was lost to a turbidity current that resulted directly and immediately from the earthquake that did so much damage on land. Many of the buildings housing satellite uplink-capable resources were lost with all in them. It has to be assumed that wires in place will not work and that wireless would be the only rapidly deployable option. But any such implementation would require effectively resolving some very difficult and complex issues of jurisdiction and governance. That is what I set out to at least touch upon with this posting as an area needing detailed discussion and decision.

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