What the news and the movies leave out: Behind the scenes of disaster aid

September 22, 2005

The hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast and the tsunami that ravaged southeast Asia was the stuff one expects to see in overblown movies, not on the nightly news. In a policy briefing paper, Peter Walker, PhD, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, critically assesses what the movies skip over: the behind the scenes workings of disaster relief. The insight he offers on how well tsunami aid was distributed and used will be helpful in the months to come as the Gulf Coast begins to rebuild.

"There was an unparalleled level of initial giving after the tsunami, and the Internet has made donations even easier," Walker said. "But the donations are only as valuable as their use: aid agencies need to be able to account for how efficiently and effectively they use donations, and for how timely their response is."

Walker reports that any evaluation of disaster response must ask four questions:
  • How well did agencies adapt to the reality of each country/area?
  • Is the community involved in rehabilitation or was the aid benevolently imposed or a cynically imposed state option?
  • Who is gaining and who may be losing in the rehabilitation?
  • Was a livelihood analysis conducted to inform rehabilitation efforts?

    "This analysis is essential to rebuilding household economies as well as policy and institutional change in the region. If you don't understand what makes a local community tick, and you don't involve them in the rebuilding, you are just asking for failure."

    A specific example, Walker points out, is Sri Lanka: "there was a perception of vast inequalities in terms of what specific populations received as assistance. Other critical issues emerged: the forcing of whole communities to construct new livelihoods, the unabashed disregard for peoples' civil, economic and human rights....all need to be seriously examined." Another example Walker notes is the appropriation of land. One community leader in Thailand is noted, in the policy briefing, as calling it "a second tsunami of corporate globalization and militarization."

    Calling into question the perception that aid is driven by need, Walker notes that it is driven by competing realities that can pull aid agencies off course. "It is driven by the wishes and emotions of the general public that provide financial support and political mindspace. It is driven by the media which shapes the disaster in the mind of the public, and the agencies. It is driven by the local political and military agendas, and of course by the global political and economic agendas. And, finally, it is driven by the needs and aspirations of the disaster survivors."

    Aid agencies, according to Walker, must examine both disaster response and the business of funding, planning and delivering global aid which is inextricably linked to the media, international trade and political agendas.

    In a related article from British Medical Journal, Walker and his colleagues elaborate on deficiencies and challenges of disaster funding. "The headlines rightly applaud the compassionate outpouring of the public around the world but fail to question the logic of promoting one-off giving from individuals rather than sustained involvement by governments. Disasters are part of normality, and if we are to have a long-lasting effect we need to rethink the way aid is delivered and invest in development to help minimize the effects of natural phenomena."
    "Disaster globalization: evaluating the impact of tsunami aid" Policy Briefing Paper, Feinstein International Famine Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Medford MA. July 2005.

    Walker, P., Wisner, B., Leaning J., Minear, L. British Medical Journal, 29 Jan 2005, 330:247-250. "Smoke and mirrors: deficiencies in disaster funding."

    Tufts University

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