Select Committee on Public Accounts First Report

1  The Department's Response to the Tsunami Disaster


1. On Sunday, 26 December 2004, an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred under the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a series of tsunami (large sea waves) which devastated coastal and immediate inland areas in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and coastal areas of a number of other countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Department activated their emergency response team upon hearing news of the disaster, and dispatched the first shipments of practical aid within 24 hours. The team is on continuous stand-by, and benefits from being staffed by people who have been dealing with humanitarian disasters for a long time, and who have experience both of the work of the Department's headquarters and in the field, delivering humanitarian assistance.

2. Although the disaster occurred during the Christmas break, senior officials and ministers came back to deal with the emergency. In addition, a committee, initially chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, was formed to co-ordinate the response of departments across Whitehall. These steps helped keep Parliament informed of developments.

3. The speed with which the Department responded to the tsunami disaster was impressive, and resulted in appropriate assistance being delivered to the affected areas very quickly. The Department attributed the success of their response to the action they took to dispatch people to the affected areas to assess needs on the ground. Based on these assessments, and the wishes of the recipient countries, the Department were able to draw on their £2 million stock-pile of emergency aid equipment to provide immediate relief.

4. Based on the needs assessments that the Department and others had made in the countries affected by the tsunami, a budget for humanitarian assistance of £75 million was announced on 10 January 2005, some two and a half weeks after the emergency struck. The response strategy developed by the Department was shared with United Nations agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the Red Cross to assist them in framing projects that the Department could then go on to support.

5. In assessing the competing requests for assistance and deciding which ones to support the Department took a range of factors into account. They considered the capacity of the relief organisations to implement their proposed projects, whether the proposals were likely to be cost-effective, and which projects could assist the poorest members of the communities worst hit by the tsunami. Having analysed the proposals put forward by the relief organisations, the Department pledged assistance amounting to £76.8 million, including £40 million to the UN Flash Appeal, £13.2 million in grants to the Red Cross movement and NGOs, a £9.5 million addition to the aid programme to Indonesia and £14.1 million for costs directly incurred by the Department.

6. The decision criteria adopted by the Department as to which projects to assist had the effect that, in many cases, grants were awarded to partners that the Department had worked with on previous occasions. The list of grants shows that more than 90 % were provided to well-recognised relief organisations.

7. Military assets—both manpower and equipment such as helicopters—can be an important resource in providing logistics support and delivering humanitarian assistance. The Department work closely with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) when humanitarian emergencies occur, and have developed a co-ordinated response based on over 20 years' experience. In responding to the tsunami, the Department worked with the MOD on logistics and the delivery of assistance, for which the Department paid the MOD's marginal costs, where those costs offered value for money judged against commercial operators.

8. In Sri Lanka, the Department's field office had encountered difficulties in the management of military assets. Two ships and a number of people arrived very rapidly, which overwhelmed the small local office. The Department recognise that what is required is a systematic framework for co-ordination and close working with the MOD.

9. In addition to the official response, many members of the public in the UK felt they should raise money and donate useful items. Some donated money to the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)—a committee comprising thirteen major UK aid agencies. The DEC appeal was launched at the end of December 2004, and by the time it closed in February 2005 it had collected some £300 million. Apart from money, the public also donated items such as blankets and tents. Not all the items donated were appropriate which led to some waste, the scale of which is not known.

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Prepared 23 November 2006