For millions of people world-wide, surviving the pressure of extreme events is the predominant objective in daily existence. The distinction between natural and human-induced disasters is becoming more and more blurred. Some countries have known only armed conflict for the last 25 years, and their number is increasing. Recently, humanitarian sources reported 24 ongoing emergencies, each of them involving at least 300,000 people “requiring international assistance to avoid malnutrition or death”. All together, including the countries still only at risk and those emerging from armed conflicts, 73 countries, i.e., almost 1.8 trillion people, were undergoing differing degrees of instability.
Instability must be envisioned as a spectrum extending between “Utopia” and “Chaos”. As emergencies bring forward extreme challenges to human life, medical and public health ethics make it imperative for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be involved. As such, WHO must enhance its presence and effectiveness in its capacity as a universally accepted advocate for public health. Furthermore, as crises become more enmeshed with the legitimacy of the State, and armed conflicts become more directed against countries' social capital, they impinge more on WHO's work, and WHO must reconcile its unique responsibility in the health sector, the humanitarian imperative and the mandate to assist its primary constituents.
Health can be viewed as a bridge to peace. The Organization specifically has recognised that disasters can and do affect the achievement of health and health system objectives. Within WHO, the Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action (EHA) is the instrument for intervention in such situations. The scope of EHA is defined in terms of humanitarian action, emergency preparedness, national capacity building, and advocacy for humanitarian ^principles. The WHO's role is changing from ensuring a two-way flow of information on new scientific developments in public health in the ideal all-stable, all-equitable, well-resourced state, to dealing with sheer survival when the state is shattered or is part of the problem. The WHO poses itself the explicit goals to reduce avoidable loss of life, burden of disease and disability in emergencies and post-crisis transitions, and to ensure that the Humanitarian Health Assistance is in-line with international standards and local priorities and does not compromise future health development. A planning tree is presented.
The World Health Organization must improve its own performance. This requires three key pre-conditions: 1) presence, 2) surge capacity, and 3) institutional support, knowledge, and competencies. Thus, in order to be effective, WHO's presence and surge capacity in emergencies must integrate the institutional knowledge, the competencies, and the managerial set-up of the Organization.