Health and human rights

July 25, 2002

Two Health and Human Rights articles in this week's issue of THE LANCET discuss the co-ordination of United Nations (UN), governmental, and non-governmental organisation (NGO) in response to emergency situations, focusing specifically on the relief effort in Angola, where civil war had raged for over two decades until a ceasefire was agreed in April this year.

A recent editorial in THE LANCET (Lancet 2002; 359: 2125) was critical of UN agencies for not responding quickly enough to humanitarian emergencies. Responding to this, Erick de Mul from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Angola, comments: "Hundreds of individual agencies around the world are now working in humanitarian assistance. The efforts of most of these organisations are remarkable. Millions of lives are saved every year by programmes that are launched, often in extreme circumstances, by UN Agencies and NGOs. The resources available for humanitarian action, however, are almost never enough."

Commenting that resource and political constraints are the main barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid in Angola, he concludes: "Reform of the UN is important, and serious efforts aimed at strengthening the system and making it more effective are needed. But we must avoid the cynicism of careless criticism and recognise that real concrete progress has been made in recent years. Humanitarian assistance has been improved and pragmatic co-ordination mechanisms have ensured that hundreds of aid workers are aiming for the same objective, saving the lives of people who would otherwise suffer or die. We must not mistake serious resource and political constraints for bureaucratic inertia. Humanitarian organisations in Angola are working together towards the same objective- ensuring that the peace that has finally come to the country after decades of warfare lasts, and that the Angolan people who have suffered so much survive and prosper with dignity."

However, in a second article, Nathan Ford from Médecins Sans Frontières highlights how an estimated three million people in Angola are in need of medical or nutritional assistance, and that half a million people have had no access to humanitarian aid since the Angolan civil war restarted in 1998.

He comments: "The response to the emerging crisis since the ceasefire has been too slow and largely inadequate. Drought and poor harvests have resulted in food insecurity throughout southern Africa, but the immediate crisis in Angola remains inadequately addressed, and people continue to die of starvation every day."
Contact: Erick de Mul, UN OCHA, UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Angola; E)

Nathan Ford, Medecins Sans Frontieres, 124-132 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1R 5DJ, UK; T) +44 (0) 20 7713 5600; F) +44 (0) 20 7713 5004; E)


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