Fantasy Island

One of the sadder features of the past 50 years has been the decline of the United Nations to a status of virtual irrelevance. Many of its subsidiary branches do vital and valuable work, but the General Assembly contributes little to the world, unable to agree on anything. It has always promised more than it has been able to deliver. Now, it doesn’t even promise very much. 

One area where it could and should deliver more is in emergency response, but even here it often seems unable to rise to the occasion. A week or so after the devastating floods in Mozambique, only four helicopters had been found in the world to assist with the rescue and with the provision of supplies to stranded villagers. By contrast, in the same week a cruise liner ran into trouble off Norway and within hours the same number of helicopters had been found and the ship’s crew and passengers had all been lifted to safety.

In Mozambique, food convoys came to a halt at the edge of the flood, because the UN’s vehicles were all road vehicles. Boats were not available. Yet flood disasters are not unforeseeable. Natural disasters, earthquakes as well as floods, occur regularly and global warming would suggest a further increase in the future. Famines also occur regularly, and so of course do wars. Each disaster is a human tragedy. There is always an urgent need for medical supplies and food, and often a need for housing or even relocation as well.

Yet each time tragedy strikes, it seems as if it has struck for the first time. Aid agencies, including the UN, lumber into action. Their efforts frequently overlap, and there seems to be little co-ordination between them. Governments scratch their bums and consider what they are prepared to do, if anything. There does not appear to be a worldwide response mechanism, ready to leap immediately into pre-planned and co-ordinated action whenever a disaster occurs, wherever it occurs.

If the UN cannot do much to solve the world’s political problems, it is time that it did a great deal more to alleviate the problems caused by recurring emergencies of all kinds. That would give it a role in today’s world that is both appropriate and essential.

My proposal will be thought naive and unachievable, but I don’t think it is impossible. Even if it cannot be realised in full, it should be possible to realise it in part. I would like to see a large piece of sparsely populated land, preferably an island or part of an island, set aside as an international HQ for emergency aid. It would need an airport and a seaport. It would need a large stock of vehicles – planes, helicopters, trucks, boats, amphibious vehicles – permanently maintained and ready to be transported anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. And it would need substantial stocks of foods and medicines. If and when these approached their sell-by dates without being required, they could be distributed free to poorer countries and replaced. There would also be a stock of emergency accommodation, such as tents and basic pre-fabs.

In other words, there would be an international depot containing almost everything likely to be needed in almost any emergency, in large quantities, able within reason to cope with several emergencies simultaneously and ready to despatch whatever is needed at the drop of a hat. There would be a permanent staff at the depot to manage and handle the stores, as well as more specialised staff, such as pilots and mechanics, who could perhaps be seconded from regular duties – either civilian or military – in their own countries on a rota basis. There would also be an organised group of other people – doctors, nurses, aid workers, administrators – who would not be based at the depot, but available to travel to emergencies from their own countries at short notice. To a large extent, this group of people exists already.

In addition, a large settlement of basic accommodation should be built, capable of housing many thousands of refugees displaced by natural disaster or by war. This would require many additional planes and ships for the airlifts, seconded from fleets and air forces around the world on a short-term basis.

There would need to be a time limit on this temporary accommodation, in part dictated by the scale of the demand at any one time. It could not become, for example, a long-term camp for those made homeless by a civil war lasting many years. New homes, as close to the original homes as possible in the circumstances, would need to start being constructed as soon as the airlift began. This is a respite for weeks, months at the most, rather than years.

Does such an island, or part of an island, exist in the world? Probably. Whichever country it belonged to would need to sell or lease it to the UN and allow it to be administered entirely under international law. It would need a harbour, manageable terrain and a tolerable climate. It would need reasonably quick access to Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East.

There would be disruption to the inhabitants, of course, so the plan could be implemented only with their full-hearted consent. But disruption can be recompensed. And the benefit would be employment opportunities and the chance to make a unique, internationally recognised, contribution to humanity.

How much would it cost? No idea. But if one contemplates, if only in abstract, the vast amount that is already spent by governments and voluntary agencies around the world on unco-ordinated activities, both long-term and ad hoc, the cost might not seem extortionate. And compared with the vast financial resources of the richer nations, it would be a drop in the ocean.

Fantasy Island? Possibly. But it does not seem altogether fanciful, if the international will existed to do it. And it would give the UN an opportunity to redeem its promise and to live up to its charter.