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Sun 27 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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First Aid

The UN is preparing to massively increase its presence in Dubai, following recent disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake. But other Gulf countries are now waking up to the benefits relief agencies can provide to their local economies. Richard Agnew reports.

|~|Humanitarian-200.jpg|~|TO THE RESCUE: Dubai is going to become a major hub for reactions to disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake, which has so far killed over 70,000 people and left many more homeless. Because of the Pakistan tragedy, the WFP has had to consider plans to expand its warehousing capacity to cope with future disasters.|~|Peter Casier, the head of the UN World Food Programme’s Dubai office, describes himself as a professional beggar. And it’s not long after we meet that his skills start showing through. “Do you know where I can find 20 right-hand drive Land Cruisers?” he asks, clutching a coffee and cigarette outside the WFP’s building in Dubai’s Humanitarian City. “If you do I’ll buy them from you right now.”

With zeal like this, it’s unsurprising that the UN’s warehouses in Dubai are now bulging with equipment — and that its base there has turned into one of the organisation’s four largest worldwide.

Since the tsunami of last December — when the UN was forced to buy many of its relief supplies in Asia, then ship them all the way back to affected areas via its centre in Denmark — the emirate has been forged into a major link in the group’s global supply chain. When famine or natural disasters strike anywhere in Asia or Africa, Dubai is now where the WFP manages its response.

“Dubai has become the world’s largest logistical centre for humanitarian emergencies,” Casier says. “In a city where everyone goes on about having the biggest malls and the highest towers — it’s strange that that fact is completely unknown.”

The WFP first moved to Dubai after 9/11, merging two regional centres in Pakistan and Uganda into one larger one in the Gulf emirate. It started off with 1000 square metres of warehousing space for its equipment, but by 2004 had increased this six-fold, filling hundreds of flights with goods for emergency-hit areas, such as Sudan, Chad and East Asia.

The earthquake that hit Pakistan, India and Afghanistan in August this year increased the need for more space. “We hit the ceiling of our warehouse in August — it was full,” Casier says. “We now need 20,000 square metres of warehousing. We have millions of dollars of emergency stocks in Dubai.”

The WFP gets its offices and warehouses rent-free from the Dubai government — which has not been slow to realise the benefits aid agencies like it can bring to a country. Besides the obvious kudos, the group’s Dubai office employs between 60 and 100 people at any one time and procures around half of its goods in the emirate — giving rise to a mini-ecosystem of suppliers targeting it and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As the UN’s largest agency and one that sells services to other NGOs, it has also helped attract other aid organisations to the emirate, both within and outside the UN.

Dubai’s growing role in the emergency response sector has led to the creation, curiously, of two free zones in the emirate for aid agencies — Humanitarian City (DHC) and Aid City (DAC). These, it was announced recently, are set to merge and be amalgamated into a huge development park in Jebel Ali, which will be open to UN agencies, NGOs and companies working in the humanitarian sector, including suppliers.

The new non-profit entity — which has yet to be named — aims to provide a full resource centre for its clients, including office and warehousing space. “It will be about a year before the warehouses are finished and another year before the offices are finished,” says Barbara Castek, the former head of DAC, who will be in charge of the new entity. “It’s long overdue because the UN needs more space — it’s now serving such a wide area.”

Recent events, such as the US’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, have highlighted the issue of managing reactions to natural disasters on an international level. They also suggest that the creation of a cluster of aid agencies close to areas that are particularly prone to disasters, such as Africa and Asia, makes sense.

Following the tsunami of last December, the UN re-assessed its response capabilities in Asia and decided to scale up the operation in Dubai rather than build any new facilities in the Far East. According to Dubai government officials, several UN agencies are also considering using the emirate as a regional centre and at least one is thinking about moving its entire headquarters there from New York. Dubai’s historical position as a trading centre also helps, says Casier.

“Exporting and importing is a dream here compared with other countries where we work, and 80% of the world’s potential emergencies are within a cargo plane’s range from Dubai. A lot of agencies still have their supplies and response teams housed in Europe and that is often now too costly. After the wars in the Balkan region came to end, you don’t have large situations any more in Europe that you need to respond to.”||**|||~||~||~|The new entity aims to provide other benefits to aid agencies, other than greater efficiency in the movement of goods. Its resources — which, according to Castek, will start coming onstream next year — will include training and recruitment, as well as an online facility which will match donor with organisations that need funds. It will also offer access to a procurement database, which will help agencies to locate and purchase essential relief goods.

Casier also sees less obvious benefits. “It will be good if there was a clear strategy as to how the Dubai government can channel foreign aid,” he says. “Right now, it is on an ad hoc basis, not structured and quite confusing. Also, with the merged entity there will be one voice through which they can make requests to private entities and government entities — such as the amount of space we need at the new airport in Jebel Ali, for instance.”

He adds that as the zone proves itself, the emirate will gain a better idea of what agencies need. “Right now, in the very high echelons in Dubai, people are quite unaware about what happens in the humanitarian market and how specialised it is,” he says.

Agencies looking to set up in the new zone are keen to see how stringent the regulations suppliers located there will be subject to, and whether prices will be controlled when emergencies happen. But perhaps Dubai’s biggest challenge will be keeping them happy while the transition happens. Casier admits he is always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, and is not scared of using his organisation’s size as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the Dubai authorities. Governments in Qatar and at least one other GCC country are believed to be planning the creation of similar facilities, and Casier says he’s been approached more than once.

“Some of the other countries in the region have picked up very quickly what is happening with the humanitarian market in Dubai,” he says. “The others are looking at it and thinking there’s something in it for them financially. If they make it cheaper, we go.”

He adds: “Most of the places where we operate, all our operating costs are funded through the host government. In Panama, Copenhagen and Brindisi, not only the rent is for free, but also the utilities, the communications and a big part of the staffing cost is funded by the host government. In Dubai, that hasn’t sunk in yet. If Qatar or Bahrain gave me a package which helped me to bring my overheads down and operate more effectively I [would] move tomorrow. The decision to move … to Dubai was made in 14 days, so we don’t wait very long.”

Castek is confident, however, that the emirate can fend off any challenge from elsewhere in the region. “It is up to the humanitarian organisations and UN agencies to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each location, according to their own specific needs. From our experience, monetary incentives are not the only criteria to select a location — there are many variables to consider. We are very confident that the mix Dubai offers to the humanitarian sector is difficult to beat,” she says.

Her ambitions also spread wider than creating a regional centre. Eventually, the plan is to establish a global network of similar hubs to help aid agencies respond better to humanitarian disasters wherever they happen. Castek is currently negotiating with DP World, the emirate’s huge port operating company, to base humanitarian centres wherever it has an international presence, and hopes to create over 10 facilities in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The first has already been established in the east African port of Djibouti, to provide storage and distribution facilities for aid agencies. “Wherever DP World is managing ports and free zones, we will have facilities,” says Castek. “[DP World has] to negotiate with its landlords, but I’m sure countries would be very open to it.”||**||

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