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A ‘Big Tick’ for A&O’s work to mitigate the impact of natural disasters

26 June 2013

Allen & Overy has been awarded a ‘Big Tick’ by Business in the Community for its work with the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In partnership, the IFRC and A&O have produced a Model Law and Model Emergency Decree, accessible to countries worldwide, which are having a practical impact on disaster preparedness and response.

In the International Disaster Relief category, BITC judges commented that: “The programme was… a great example of a business using its expertise to support a clear need in disaster preparedness”.

Mitigating the impact of natural disasters – a legal approach

A conservative estimate puts the combined death toll of the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Myanmar cyclone of 2008 – the three worst natural disasters of the last decade – at around 650,000 people.

The impact of natural disasters is almost always greater in areas where poverty rates are high. The countries affected by these disasters are still, years later, rebuilding and recovering.

A speedy and effective response by government, business and civil society makes all the difference in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. But responses are too often hindered by legal issues; whether they are barriers to the flow of overseas aid and essential equipment, complicated taxes and tariffs or immigration rules that keep out key personnel.

Until recently there had been little focus on the role of law in mitigating the impact of natural disasters (the emphasis being on the response itself). However, A&O's partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been working to change that.

A&O's partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent

A&O and the British Red Cross (a member organisation of the IFRC) formed a charity partnership in 2009 with the aim of fundraising for Red Cross work internationally, and volunteering the professional skills of A&O's staff on key Red Cross and Red Crescent projects.

"An area of mutual interest emerged around the theme of disaster relief," explains A&O's worldwide senior partner, David Morley. "Our global footprint now stretches to 43 offices, and in recent years we've seen more of our people feel personally impacted by natural disasters. We donate to relief appeals but there's an expectation from employees to go beyond this."

Many of A&O's global clients were experiencing similar growing expectations from employees to do more in response to natural disasters.

"But disaster relief wasn't an area that law firms had really looked at before," David continues. "So we felt that, given our partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, plus our global network and skills, we could really achieve something."

"From our side," adds David Fisher, Coordinator of the IFRC’s Disaster Law Programme, "the need for this work came from over 10 years of research and consultations, which showed, very clearly, that gaps in specific rules and procedures have impeded large-scale emergency relief operations around the world."

So, in 2010 a team of lawyers from 23 A&O offices joined forces, on a pro bono basis, with the IFRC's disaster law experts to research the domestic legislations that regulate incoming disaster relief across several dozen jurisdictions.

"It's not often that over 20 offices can come together on a pro bono project," explains David Morley. "This project was a great opportunity for us to make the most of our legal knowledge and global reach."

A new Model Law and Model Emergency Decree

The team’s research confirmed that many countries lack clear legal rules when it comes to the regulation of international operations. These include visa procedures for international relief personnel, customs clearance and duties for relief goods and equipment, tax exemptions for relief operations and permissions for employing local staff.

There were, however, some examples of governments taking action to solve these issues. “These examples of good practice are enormously helpful too,” says David Fisher. “Law-makers prefer to build on experience but they rarely have access to legal information from other countries.”

Drawing on this research, the IFRC, together with the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, developed a Model Law on the acceptance of international disaster relief.

The work has been monitored and analysed in discussions with key stakeholders (governments, international organisations and humanitarian relief experts) to ensure the guidance is suitable – and flexible enough – for the countries most susceptible to natural disasters, and those where a disaster would have the greatest impact.

The IFRC and its partners are now using the Model Law to engage with governments and policymakers. Already, they have been applied in technical assistance projects in eight countries, as well as being used by the IFRC as a basis for comments on pending legislation in a further 16 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean and South America.

In addition, in response to suggestions that arose from the consultation process, the IFRC and OCHA are now developing a Model Emergency Decree focused on temporary rules for incoming international disaster relief – benefiting again from A&O's research and advice.

Further progress and a partnership with BITC

To broaden the scope and impact of this project, and to help its commercial clients focus their own efforts in disaster relief work, A&O formed a partnership with Business in the Community to raise awareness about these issues.

Several roundtables have taken place with BITC, for example on the role of corporates in disaster relief work, and on creating greater understanding between the not-for-profit community and the commercial sector, with a focus on how to offer skills-based volunteering as well as financial relief in the aftermath of disasters.

The developing world, the Red Cross and Red Crescent stresses, is rapidly urbanising. But around one billion people live in overcrowded slums, which are the most vulnerable to natural disasters. With climate change increasing the frequency of such disasters, this is a growing area of importance both for humanitarian organisations and for businesses whose people are affected, directly and indirectly, by natural disasters around the world.

This project has brought together the Red Cross and Crescent's operational and legal experience in relation to disaster situations, with A&O's geographic reach and legal knowledge. The new Model Law and Model Emergency Decree are long-term resources that, all those involved hope, will assist in disaster law issues for many years to come.