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By Lt. Cmdr. Andrew McGinley, special to U.S. Naval War College Public Affairs
Oct. 31, 2012

NEWPORT, R.I. – Participants representing the complex tapestry of institutions working in the Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) arena met at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) to discuss the future of HA/DR Operations, on Oct. 25-26.

This conference built on a previous meeting in May 2012, where interagency partners discussed each other’s strengths and weaknesses in an effort to minimize redundancy and streamline care.

Specific challenges addressed at the October conference focused on fiscal issues. The United States is the world leader in many arenas, and the HA/DR mission is no exception. However, as the U.S. enters a new constrained fiscal environment, does its investment in humanitarian assistance contribute to national security? If yes, what is the answer to the imminent budget constraints?

A snapshot of the past ten years reveals the importance of the HA/DR mission. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2008 Burmese Cyclone, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake; in each case, the U.S. was the first to respond and offer aid. If response to future disasters is dependent on funding and a direct relation to our nation’s security, is the world prepared to accept American inaction when calamity does not necessarily fit into this framework?

“Disaster relief is totally separate in many respects,” said professor Albert J. Shimkus, National Security Affairs department and a former commanding officer of Medical Treatment Facility USNS Comfort. He added that when disasters occur, “the U.S. will respond.” His estimates regarding the future of the Humanitarian Assistance mission are not as definitive, but they do remain “cautiously optimistic.”

“We measure ‘things’ very well,” he mentioned, “for instance, the number of aspirin onboard, the number of surgeries performed.”

The challenge is quantifying intangibles, such as the opinions of the populations that the U.S. has assisted. After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, for example, public opinion toward America in general went from negative to positive, due in large part to U.S.-led assistance efforts in Banda Aceh. The USNS Mercy has since returned to the region three times to follow up on medical care and reinforce American goodwill.

Military and civilian leaders, along with those in the medical community, are faced with spotlighting the real effects of those missions, articulating how health diplomacy aligns with our security strategy, and ensuring that those providing the funding fully realize its benefits.

The October 2012 Humanitarian Assistance Conference at NWC provided a great start to answering those challenges. Panels discussed interagency and international perspectives, the question of “are we on the right course,” the ethics and cultural dynamics associated with HA/DR, whether the U.S. Government should continue to engage in HA/DR, and a long-term strategy.

Edited by Cmdr. Carla McCarthy
Posted by Dan Marciniak