Humanitarian Health Action

Purpose statements for panels and sessions

WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia

Session 1.5: Health policy and coordination: a critical review of experience


This event again highlighted the need for countries to develop policies and standards as a platform from which effective coordination by all humanitarian actors can occur. Initiatives such as SPHERE have helped most international agencies and NGOs to organize and direct international humanitarian action based on a common understanding of best practice and appropriate resources. However governments and donors are yet to fully come on board SPHERE or to replicate it. Ideally, the health and social policies, practices and standards of the affected country should inform and direct all humanitarian action after a natural disaster, but in the absence of such a framework, international actors, once in country, are free to operate as they wish. In the health sector, policies and standards are needed not only for technical areas, but in a broader context including medical ethics, responsible donor-ship, health financing, role of the private sector and community participation in the organization and delivery emergency medical and public health services.

Following are some issues that remain areas of concern:

  • Management of dead bodies and identification of victims
  • Effectiveness of government in establishing and sustaining coordination mechanisms
  • Donations of medicines and medical equipment
  • Appropriateness and effectiveness of foreign relief workers (in large numbers and with unknown qualifications)
  • Role and effectiveness of international field hospitals
  • Role and effectiveness of psycho-social interventions by non-nationals
  • Role of, and oversight of, the private and commercial sectors in disaster relief.

Key questions

What role did a lack of national policy guidance and standards play in each of the above areas of concern in each of the affected countries?

What can be done to get countries committed to publishing and maintaining health sector policies and standards for disasters, and establishing coordination mechanisms to enforce them during a crisis?

What is the role of international community in encouraging and supporting national policy development and coordination mechanisms?