Tag: catastrophic emergencies

Multiple meltdowns?

Most of the members of the Duck are at the ISA conference in Montreal this week.

Meanwhile, Japan is trying to deal with a horrific series of nuclear accidents, triggered by natural disaster — the 9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on nuclear engineering or physics. However, I can recommend some writing by specialists who are closely following the situation and describing the events in understandable terms.

First, I always turn to the Arms Control Wonk for nuclear-related issues. Jeffrey Lewis was in Japan when the earthquake hit and he’s been following the situation closely. Likewise, All Things Nuclear, a blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a very valuable read. Finally, Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies and former deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment (1993 to 1999) has been writing useful pieces for the Huffington Post.

As for the politics — I think it is safe to say that nuclear power is taking a serious hit as a potential future energy source, which many have been touting lately because it does not produce greenhouse gases. Germany, which was considering the life extension of 17 nuclear plants, has delayed that decision and turned off 7 nuclear plants while safety issues are reconsidered.

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Getting Slizzerd with the Red Cross: Disasters and/in Social Networking

This is not my usual forte – Charli is much better on NGOs, networks and social things. (I just like tweeting.) However, last night when I checked my twitter, a fairly odd message came up from the American Red Cross:

Slightly different from their usual “please donate blood” or “how are you preparing for the blizzard?” kind of emails.

Within an hour, the tweet was withdrawn and replaced with this:

Colour me impressed. A 130 year old humanitarian agency with a sense of humour.

However, I’m drawing attention to the story because yesterday was also the day the ARC released research it has done (in infographic form!) as to how social networking might be used in an emergency. 28% of respondents noted that they would use social networking to let people know they were safe.

It might sound laughable, but after having gone through 7/7 and 21/7 – when mobile networks were completely down, I had to rely on email to find out what had happened to friends and family. I have to say that I would certainly have used facebook and twitter in that situation. And I would have preferred to follow the situation on twitter rather than waiting for press conferences. (Although that just might be me.) So the question is should humanitarian organizations do the same? Should they both gather information from social networks and disseminate it this way as well?

I’m not entirely sure what the risks are – is it that getting a clear picture would be difficult? How to tell the real tweets from the fake ones? What about people (like my parents) who don’t know what a “twitter” is? Would they be disadvantaged by such a turn? Without much background on the subject, I’m going to work with the idea that for now the use of social networking in disasters/crises would be best understood as complementary rather than replacing other services.

However, the infographic provides a really interesting collection of facts and figures related to how social networking has been used in the past and gives us an indication as to how it might be used in the future, other than the promotion of #gettngslizzerd. It also notes the number of emergency response organizations that have twitter accounts.

As for the unfortunate tweet, the Red Cross has given its side of the story here – noting that its members are only human. This is true; however I would add that after working with them recently on a project, they are some really good humans who do an impressive array of work.

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‘Tis the season

This year began with a human tragedy of horrific proportions — the earthquake in Haiti. We may never know precisely how many people died, but the government in Port-Au-Prince estimated 230,000 in February.

The news did not improve as the year progressed. Consider this ANI news report from Saturday about flooding in Pakistan — and keep in mind that floodwaters have not yet receded in some areas even though the worst flooding occurred months ago:

It is estimated that the floods affected up to 20 million people, while over 750,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

The UN had rated it as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history, saying that the number of people suffering from the crisis exceeded the combined total in three recent mega disasters – the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

In 2011, experts predict that thanks to La Niña, Kenya may well experience a humanitarian emergency. Zimbabwe is on the brink of disaster because of cholera, measles, and flu outbreaks.

Haiti itself is ending the year with a cholera epidemic that has infected 100,000 people and killed nearly 2200 already.

And yet, despite these truly heart-wrenching emergencies, the number of people harmed and killed in them is dwarfed by the ravages of day-to-day poverty of the type described in Paul Collier’s work on the world’s “bottom billion.” A billion people live in abject poverty on $1 a day and roughly another billion live on $2 per day.

In the November/December Washington Monthly, Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, explains that “complex humanitarian emergencies” like the Haitian earthquake and Pakistani floods are not, in fact, the primary source of human suffering worldwide:

[F]ocusing on war, flood, famine, and earthquakes is in itself a selection mechanism. Humanitarian emergencies are thankfully rare, concentrated, and usually short-lived events. Take Africa—often seen as the home stable for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Less than three-tenths of a percent of the population was affected by famine in the average year between 1990 and 2005. And in 2005, only one-half of 1 percent of the population were refugees.

If tens of millions of people are in need of urgent assistance every year, this still suggests that, however telegenic are humanitarian crises, they don’t represent the biggest challenges of global poverty. More than 16 percent of children born in Africa die before their fifth birthday, for example. Around a billion people worldwide are malnourished….The considerable majority of extreme human suffering occurs outside of what is commonly recognized as a crisis situation.

Kenny explains in that article that humanitarian emergencies are often rightly followed by new emergency assistance — even as development aid to address the endemic problem of global poverty languishes. Thanks partly to the Great Recession, government development assistance is certainly down from peak levels earlier this decade.

Americans like to consider themselves a charitable people — particularly at this time of year. Indeed, Giving USA Foundation reports that Americans give away over $300 billion annually, which is over 2% of GDP. And it amounts to a lot of cash. Jeffrey Sachs has been saying for years that global poverty could be eradicated for about $200 to $250 billion per year.

However, close scrutiny reveals that individual charitable giving by Americans does not typically go to causes that help the global poor — or national poor, for that matter. In the December 6 issue of The Nation, CUNY Graduate Center History Professor David Nasaw asks, “Where does this money go?”

Some to disaster relief or to feed, clothe and shelter the poor—but not very much. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich claims that only about 10 percent of charitable giving goes to the poor and needy. A third goes to religious organizations; 13 percent to education; 7 percent to hospitals, healthcare organizations and research; 4 percent to arts and culture; 3 percent to international peace and relief efforts; 2 percent to environmental and animal-related causes.

Although it is never easy to quantify giving, closer scrutiny of individual, as opposed to foundation, funding indicates that much of it goes to causes that directly or indirectly benefit the donors. Individual donors are more likely to give to the church or synagogue they or members of their families attend, to their alma maters, their children’s private schools and the museums and cultural institutions they patronize.

I am not sure of the precise NGO or IO targets for charitable giving to alleviate global poverty, but I am certain that this issue should be a higher priority for individual donors like you and me — though Nasaw points out that the 3.1% of Americans earning $200,000 or more annually (or who hold assets above $1 million) give about 70% of the $300 billion US total.

I guess that means we need to convince affluent people to be less selfish in their annual giving.

One last note. Nasaw points out that thanks to the US tax code, “every $100 donated to charity by a high-income person means $35 less to the Treasury.” He is not trying to sound like a Grinch (or perhaps a Scrooge), but if affluent people could not deduct their private donations, the US Treasury would have nearly $75 billion potentially to use in the public interest.

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Silent coup?

Back in September, I blogged about the new Northern Command, which oversees deployment of an Army Brigade Combat Team inside the US — putting active American troops on the homeland for the first time since 1878 (other than during national emergency).

The recent post was a somewhat paranoid followup to one I wrote on July 4, 2007, about NSPD 51. That White House security directive asserts presidential leadership of government during catastrophic emergency. By the standards of the directive, the US arguably had two such emergencies during the Bush years (9/11 and Hurricane Katrina). Potentially, it creates a broad threat to ordinary democratic rule.

Apparently, even some Bush administration officials are worried about these moves — and others. Thomas A. Schweich’s op-ed in the December 21 Washington Post warned of a “silent military coup” against the US government. Schweich recently served as Bush’s ambassador for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan and deputy assistant secretary of State for international law enforcement affairs, so he had a front row seat to the disturbing trends he outlines.

So, what specifically worries Schweich?

In addition to the NorthCom deployment, Schweich points to Defense undermining State Department training efforts in Afghanistan, the military tribunals in Guantanamo, militarized anti-drug efforts in Latin America, and increased military involvement in domestic surveillance. He’s very worried about the placement of military officials at the top of intelligence agencies. Schweich notes Barack Obama’s risky choice for National Security Advisor, retired 4 star general James Jones. Behind the scenes, notes ambassador Schweich, the military has effectively vetoed numerous foreign policy choices and shaped enormous budget choices. He is almost offended that Defense gets billions of dollars to accomplish what other agencies are asked to do for mere tens of millions.

It’s an interesting piece that probably went unnoticed during the holidays.

I should also note that other conservatives, including Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, worry about militarism in America.

Bill Clinton’s White House effectively outsourced a number of key decisions to the Pentagon — rejection of the ICC, the land mine ban and CTBT, for example. It will be interesting to see if Obama’s administration can reclaim civilian governance of foreign policy.

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For What It’s Worth

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

—- Buffalo Springfield, 1967

The Army Times reported on September 8 that the Army has a brand new mission — and potential battleground: American soil.

The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home.

Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters, including terrorist attacks.

…They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack.

Apparently, outside of a specific national emergency, this is the first such deployment since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.

The Army Times reports that this is the first time an active unit has been given NorthCom as a dedicated command and that the mission is permanent. Another brigade will replace the 1st BCT when it completes its tour.

Is tour the right word when deployed at home?

If you recall my July 4, 2007, post on “National Continuity Policy” (and NSPD 51), then you might understand why this bothers me and why I began this post with some lines from an old Buffalo Springfield song.

“I don’t know what America’s overall plan is — I just know that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that are standing by to come and help if they’re called,” [1st BCT commander Col. Roger] Cloutier said.

Hmmm.

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Happy fourth: worried edition

Today is a day that the United States of America celebrates its independence. The Declaration of Independence, which was dated July 4, 1776, contains some of the most familiar political language in world history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Those last clauses are kind of interesting because people seldom think about the circumstances that might cause a government to be replaced whole cloth.

In an era of overt political “regime change,” perhaps this idea should receive more attention.

Setting aside the question of Iraq, the Bush administration has spent some time since 9/11 thinking about the unthinkable: a necessary transformation of the U.S. government in response to a catastrophic emergency.

On May 9, the White House and Department of Homeland Security released Presidential Directives on National Security (NSPD 51) and Homeland Security (HSPD-20) that dealt explicitly with “National Continuity Policy” to “enhance the credibility of our national security posture and enable a more rapid and effective response to and recovery from a national emergency.”

Some parts of the directives are classified, but the public portion identifies a number of “national essential functions” (NEFs) and declares simply that “The President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government” after a “catastrophic emergency.”

On the internet, you can find critics who equate this order with a declaration of “martial law.” One blogger on DailyKos said it provided the Bush administration with a “lever that could well be used to end democracy in the United States.”

Part of the problem is that the definition of “catastrophic emergency” would seem to extend even to 9/11-scale attacks or Katrina-level natural disasters.

We’ve had two of those events in less than six years.

Before your pulse starts racing, I would note that the first NEF is “Ensuring the continued functioning of our form of government under the Constitution, including the functioning of the three separate branches of government” and that “each branch of the Federal Government is responsible for its own continuity program.”

Nonetheless, the document is kind of scary in that it allows for the possibility of fundamental change in American democracy 231 years after the “Declaration of Independence.”

Has anyone here read Annihilation from Within; The Ultimate Threat to Nations? by former Defense undersecretary Fred Iklé? The Financial Times review last November explained one of its core points:

Mr Iklé’s apocalyptic fears focus less on radical Islamists or a nuclear-armed North Korea and more on the danger of a would-be tyrant seizing power by annihilating his government from within, possibly through the use of weapons of mass destruction that would be blamed on others.

One weakness of Iklé’s book is that it does not really reveal much that a country can do in advance to preclude these events from happening. Then again, the neoconservative does not predict this scenario fo rthe U.S. The FT again

He does not see the US as vulnerable to such a coup because of the “powerful influence of its body politic and the hallowed position of the constitution” – but there are likely candidates in the semi-dictatorial regimes of central Asia, the Middle East, or even Russia.

Of course, the conspiracy-minded might note that the author was writing before NSPD 51.

Do we live in a new world?

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