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UN Seeks Better Solutions to Disaster Situations

Officials at the United Nations say they would like to review disaster management policy in West Africa, where recent floods have killed hundreds and left hundreds of thousands displaced. They say the floods have shown more focus should be put on long-term solutions rather than just quick fixes. One idea is using micro-credit to help avert future problems. Phillip Wellman reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says it is trying to organize a meeting between governments, non-governmental organizations and charitable donors to discuss the lasting impact of the floods and agree on ways to improve disaster management in the future.

Heavy rains fell throughout West Africa in late August and mid-September, causing widespread flooding that destroyed houses and roads, washed away cattle and damaged vast areas of farmland.

The head of OCHA in West Africa, Herve Lubovic de Lys, says the United Nations has allocated nearly $4 million in emergency relief aid to provide immediate necessities such as food, water and sanitation to affected areas. But he says these short-term solutions are not enough to restore lost livelihoods.

"If we really want to give this population the capacity to recover from the crisis, we should not only think about the non-food items and the food items, we should also think about tools that could help the people," he said.

Lubovic de Lys says issuing micro-credit loans could help thousands in West Africa regain and sustain their lost livelihoods. He says loans for less than $100 could help start or expand a business in most of the areas affected by flooding. He adds that the income from these businesses could provide better food, housing, health care and education for entire families.

Lubovic de Lys says micro-credit is just one of the issues that will likely be discussed during the OCHA-sponsored regional meeting that should take place before the end of the year. He says monitoring climate change is another.

"If climate change is considered a source of this weather instability, then what can we do to better monitor climate change in the future? As we speak the networking of the various weather stations across the region is not as good as it could be," he added. "So on the response side we can talk about micro-credit as a new idea and on the preparing side we can talk about the stronger networking of all the weather stations across the region."

International development specialist at the British-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, Brian Thomson, also believes governments and donors should begin thinking in the long term.

But he says because the situation will vary from country to country, assistance should be tailored to specific requirements. He says issuing micro-credit may not be useful in all cases.

"It may not be effective if there are other constraints on, for example, agricultural producers," he said. "In some cases, the infrastructure has been affected by the flooding and so the priority should be to restore the infrastructure so that the crops can be marketed."

Thomson says micro-credit could also cause more problems if it is not correctly administered.

"One of the issues of course with micro-credit is that it needs to be properly managed and it does not make sense if it is going to result in un-payable debts," he added.

The United Nations and some non-government organizations recently launched a $10 million appeal to assist flood victims in Ghana, one of the countries most devastated from flooding with over 300,000 people affected. They say in total, 800,000 people in 14 West African countries have been affected by the floods.