Double DART (or make it smaller?)
Ira Basen, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Dec. 14, 2005 | More Reality Check
Stephen Harper has committed a Conservative government to "doubling the size and capacity of the Disaster Assistance Response Team to enable enhanced international disaster relief capability."
The Tory leader's announcement, made on the campaign trail in Trenton, Ont., this week, caught many observers by surprise. First, it was just two months ago, on Oct. 14, that Helena Guergis, the Conservative international development critic, declared DART to be "more of a publicity stunt than anything." But beyond that, it is not clear exactly what it is Harper plans to double, because in some ways, DART doesn't really exist.
DART was established in 1996, as a virtual unit within the Canadian military. It has a tiny full time staff of only fourteen people, but when deployed, that number expands to more than two hundred engineers, medical staff and security personnel. The Conservative plan is to double the number of stand-by personnel to four hundred.
DART first saw action following the Turkish earthquake in 1999. More than five years passed before it was called upon again, this time to aid the victims of the deadly tsunami that struck southeast Asia on Boxing Day 2004. The DART team was eventually stationed in Sri Lanka, but it took three weeks to get there, and it was criticized for being too slow, too cumbersome and too expensive. Similar charges were levied in October when DART was dusted off again, this time to assist the survivors of the earthquake in Pakistan.
Most of those calling for reform of DART argue that its problem is not that it is too small, but that it is too big. In an article in the Winnipeg Free Press in January 2005, Dianne DeMille and Stephen Priestley of the Canadian American Strategic Review discussed ways DART could be made more responsive to humanitarian disasters. Almost all involved shrinking, rather than expanding it.
In the first place, deploying DART requires the approval of three bureaucracies: the Department of Defence, the Foreign Affairs Department and the Canadian International Development Agency. But CIDA is no fan of DART, generally preferring to rely on international relief agencies to get the job done. Priestley and DeMille suggest CIDA should not be involved in making decisions about military operations, even humanitarian ones involving DART.
Second, the authors point out that the sheer physical size of DART's equipment is a big problem. Dozens of 20-foot-long ISO shipping containers and 200-odd personnel must be delivered. Moving all this equipment at the same time is a logistical nightmare.
But what if it all didn't have to go at once? DeMille and Priestley suggest breaking DART up into its various "sub-units" – water purification, medical, communications, support, and security. Sending the sub-units that are required first, with the others following later, would allow DART to be deployed more quickly and for less money. So too would investing in newer generations of smaller, more mobile field hospitals, water purifiers and hybrid diesel/electric trucks.
In other words, if the objective is to make DART more responsive and less cumbersome in order to "enhance international disaster relief capability," the answer would seem to lie not in doubling its size, but in making it smaller.