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The politics of disaster aid

Food donated by an aid organisation being delivered to a remote location in Haiti
following the earthquake in January 2010 (Pic by DVIDSHUB @ Flickr)

ON 13 Jan 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti, killing thousands instantaneously. Then on 20 Jan, a 6.1-magnitude aftershock rocked Haiti once again. There are conflicting reports, but it can be assumed that more than 200,000 lives were lost as a result of the earthquake and its aftermath. That number matches the 2004 Asian tsunami death toll.

As with the 2004 tsunami, the outpouring of public sympathy for Haiti was instantaneous. The US, haunted by the spectre of former President George W Bush’s incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, committed massive aid to Haiti. Yet, within 24 hours of the first earthquake, the FBI had to release a fraud alert warning the public of sham donation appeals. The bureau appealed to internet users to “apply a critical eye and do their due diligence before responding to those requests”.

Yet another earthquake has struck, this time in Chile on 27 Feb, and aid is bound to start flowing that way, too. So, exactly what due diligence was the FBI referring to? What sort of critical examination can the public apply when donating to help relieve an epic natural disaster?

Good hearts vs logistical challenges

Malaysians tend to be very sympathetic towards natural disaster survivors, says Mercy Malaysia president Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus. This has been true of both the Haiti earthquake and the Asian tsunami, he says.

“We’ve received calls from groups wanting to donate money to help the survivors of the [Haiti] earthquake,” he tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview. “All we did was hold a press conference [in early February], informing the public that we were collecting money for Haiti.” He added that people were also taking the initiative to organise their own events to raise funds.

The question, however, is if this public generosity translates into actual help for those who suffer most.

Dr Faizal providing assistance in Sri Lanka in 2003 (Courtesy of Ahmad Faizal Perdaus)

“It’s common for global generosity to face logistical challenges following a natural disaster,” says Jason Smith, Asia and Pacific communications head for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“Very often the infrastructure in impacted countries is destroyed, and movement of donations from outside countries to the people who need them is slowed,” he tells The Nut Graph in a telephone interview.

Smith says what compounds this problem is that most countries do not believe big disasters will hit them. Therefore, they do not put in place legal systems or infrastructures to handle large volumes of international aid.

“For example, governments need to decide in advance to give tax and import exceptions to humanitarian relief teams. Often, governments do not think about this before a disaster strikes. And then, disaster strikes,” he says.

Other infrastructural issues

Natural disasters also have a more devastating impact on the most vulnerable societies, says Anni Natasha Azmi, fund development manager for Force of Nature Aid Foundation, referring to countries in which even existing infrastructures are undeveloped.

She tells The Nut Graph in a telephone interview that these infrastructures include democratic institutions that respect human rights and encourage transparency and accountability.

This point is important, because the extent of Haiti’s devastation was not just due to the earthquake’s intensity. It was also due to Haiti’s extreme poverty — resulting in weak physical infrastructures and homes — which is in turn a direct result of decades of US-sponsored dictatorship. After all, a 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area was of almost the same magnitude as Haiti’s but killed only 63 people. And Chile was hit by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake — 500 times more powerful than Haiti’s — yet its death toll at press time is in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands.

A similar outcome to Haiti’s, because of sociopolitical factors, can be said of the Asian tsunami. Back then, Aceh was in the grip of a guerrilla war against military rule, while Sri Lanka was still reeling from a decades-old civil war.

A Sumatran village in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004 (Public domain / Wiki commons)

Therefore, it is important for donors to understand that when a natural disaster hits countries like this, the survivors have multiple crises to deal with. And urgent disaster response and relief will only take up the first three months of aid efforts. After that, long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts need to kick in, and this could take years depending on the severity of the aftermath.

Essential information

So what do donors — both individual and corporate — need to know in order to make sure their money reaches the people who need it most?

Anni says they need to understand firstly that their donations will probably overwhelm the affected country’s bureaucracy.

Anni (Courtesy of Anni
Natasha Azmi)
“It’s also better to give to local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who know the culture on the ground and how things are done,” she says.

Smith agrees, and says one of the IFRC’s system’s strengths is that their national societies work directly with communities, and are thus seen as credible partners in the response process. Anni cautions that this might not always be the case — some big international NGOs have been known not to partner with local NGOs in relief efforts.

Smith (Courtesy of Jason
“Donors should also demand to know exactly where their ringgit goes to, and the relevant NGOs must come up with detailed reports on how the donations have been spent,” she adds. For example, she says Force of Nature publishes these details on all the projects it funds on its website.

Dr Faizal also says Mercy Malaysia is one of the few NGOs in Malaysia that publishes its audited accounts every year in the major newspapers.

He says Mercy Malaysia is now certified with the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP International), the humanitarian sector’s first international self-regulatory body. HAP International certifies members that comply with its standards, thus assuring disaster survivors, staff, volunteers, host authorities and donors that the agency will deliver the best humanitarian service possible in each situation. 

Above all, Anni says that although there will be overwhelming donations in a natural disaster’s immediate aftermath, affected countries will continue to need long-term aid.

“A natural disaster does not only wipe out lives, but also institutions and livelihoods. These take a long time to rebuild,” she says.

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2 Responses to “The politics of disaster aid”

  1. Melissa says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. This is exactly the sort of article that was missing, which can lead to a lot of misinformation and frustration from otherwise well-meaning people. When we know how the system works, it becomes much more satisfying to give, and it may (hopefully) even reduce the “excuses” given by those who do not donate 🙂

  2. Shane Leavy says:

    Good article Shanon. I read another interesting one recently in the Wall Street Journal, alleging that foreign aid is putting local Haitian businesses at risk.

    “I have fewer customers now because they are handing out free food down the street”, said one Haitian merchant. So it’s a complex business, this charity.

    On the other hand, perhaps it’s nice to see that people are willing to donate to countries all around the world, regardless of politics and cultural clashes.

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