By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2013 – A program initially launched to help African partners prevent pandemics has expanded to encompass preparedness for a full range of natural or man-made disasters, and should one occur, to reduce the associated pain, suffering and loss.
Recognizing the global impact of a pandemic, U.S. Africa Command began helping African nations develop the capacity needed to address the challenge almost immediately after its standup in 2008, Mike Hryshchyshyn, chief of humanitarian and health activities for the command’s security cooperation programs directorate, told American Forces Press Service.
The initial three-year program relied on U.S. Agency for International Development funding to help partners plan for and establish the systems and programs to prevent an outbreak and control its spread, he explained. Africom launched a broader, Defense-Department funded initiative when that program concluded last year. The new effort addresses not just pandemics, but also natural and manmade disasters such as floods, droughts and earthquakes.
All have the potential to wreak devastation in Africa, Hryshchyshyn said. He noted that the African continent leads the world in the number of disaster declarations, particularly related to floods and droughts.
The toll is tremendous from a humanitarian standpoint, but also extends to basic communications, infrastructure, economies and, of particular concern to Africom, military and security operations.
“At the end of the day, we see a pandemic or other disaster as a potential security risk,” Hryshchyshyn said. “If it occurs on a large-scale magnitude, it has the possibility of eroding basic security institutions and systems. In a worst-case scenario, chaos can break loose.”
So as part of its security cooperation program, Africom works extensively with its African partners to ensure they’re ready for whatever comes their way.
“This is a program focused on prevention, mitigation and building partner capacity along with our friends on the African continent,” Hryshchyshyn said. “This is truly a program of partnership.”
As in the United States, a disaster response in Africa likely would involve military forces that provide support to civil authorities.
“Our theater campaign strategy talks about preparing for and responding to disasters and other crises,” Hryshchyshyn said. “Part of the way we do that is to work with both the military and civilian organizations in the partner nations to come up with plans.”
Hryshchyshyn emphasized that every country develops an individual plan based on its unique circumstances. “While we facilitate the process, they are the ones involved in writing the plan and at the end of the day, making sure that it works for their country,” he said.
So far, Africom has helped more than 20 African countries develop national pandemic response plans, he reported. The plans help define the roles various government entities, including the military, would serve in a disaster response. For many of the countries, Africom also has helped in developing broader plans that outline military support to civil authorities for a full range of catastrophes.
“One of the primary goals of our disaster preparedness program is to create that linkage between the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Defense, International Affairs and others so they can work together as a whole of government,” he said. “It is through the leveraging of those resources that we believe – especially on the African continent – that they will be able to have a greater impact.”
Africom also promotes interagency and international collaboration through conferences and workshops. State National Guards accustomed to disaster-response missions in the United States also regularly share their experience with African militaries they are linked with through the State Partnership Program.
In addition, Africom puts a big emphasis on disaster preparedness through its exercise program. Almost every command-sponsored exercise incorporates at least some element of a disaster response that partners can use to test their national response plans, Hryshchyshyn noted.
“This is a way to identify gaps and take a look at areas that need to be strengthened,” he said.
Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the Africom commander, got a firsthand look at the impact of these exercises during his visit to Shared Accord 13 in South Africa in August. The U.S.-South African combined joint training exercise promoted the intergovernmental collaboration that can save lives and suffering in the event of a humanitarian assistance and disaster response, Rodriguez told reporters during an online news conference in late October.
The exercise included both the South African military and the South African Ministry of Health. “This was a great example of both military-to-military and civil-to-military cooperation,” Rodriguez said. “These exercises promote regional relationships, increase capacity, and enhance cross-training and interoperability between our militaries.”
Last month, Africom sponsored a tabletop exercise in Nigeria focused specifically on a pandemic response. More than 100 civilians, military officials and representatives from Nigeria’s security sectors participated. With members of the California National Guard sharing their own experiences, they explored how the Nigerian military could partner more closely with the civilian sector and international organizations to develop a whole-of-government response, Hryshchyshyn said.
Observers from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda and other countries also participated.
Hryshchyshyn said he welcomes a regional approach to disaster response preparedness, recognizing that neighbors would likely have to work together during a crisis.
“By establishing more far-reaching communications channels and ensuring greater interoperability, they are better prepared when they have to respond to a disaster or pandemic,” he said.
“They have the contacts, they understand the systems, and they have an idea of the protocols in place. That makes it much easier for them to work together in a real-life scenario,” he said. “The whole object is to alleviate human suffering, save lives and reduce the impact of devastation that comes from these manmade or natural disasters.”
That recognition has opened doors for Africom as it develops relationships across the continent, he said.
“This is important. It is something that makes a real difference. And it is something that our partner nations are really looking for on the African continent,” Hryshchyshyn said. “In these kinds of areas, they have welcomed us with open arms and have built some long-lasting relationships which I think will pay dividends to everyone over time.”
(Follow Donna Miles on Twitter: @MilesAFPS)
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