Friday, November 15, 2013

Disaster response catastrophizing - a solid point made.

In respects to the panel / post yesterday, I found this recent Time article by John Crowley an interesting read:

Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines

He makes a good point in respects to security and the effect that media reports can have on the willingness of aid agencies to deploy their people into a potential dangerous or predatory environment. Traditional media outlets lean heavy toward fear and sensationalism and I support any efforts to paint a picture that reflects what is actually going on rather than highlighting certain choice bits aimed at maximizing consumer attention (Oh my god! That is horrible!).

Haiti, as he mentions, is a good example. I remember vivid media reports with (warning - graphic) photos of bloodstained bodies gunned down in the streets of Port-au-Prince (source: LA Times) and the general feeling that the country was an utter dystopia. That was not at all what I found when I went there. True, I arrived six months after the earthquake, once the initial panic had passed, but having spoken to foreigners who were there during the disaster and monitoring international media reports on it, they told me the violence and chaos being depicted were entirely overblown.

This is deplorable and should be called out. Balance in reporting is important, which is to say, if security is compromised and violence is happening, it is right to bring attention to it. But to focus on it in such a way as to make it seem more widespread than it is, or at the expense of highlighting the other side of what happens in any disaster - people coming together to help each other - does a disservice to all involved, and if it deters quick deployment of aid, can result in more lives lost.

That said, I still believe that it isn't wrong to call out aspects of response that seem to be repeating - delays, a lack of preparedness, etc. As I said during yesterday's BBC panel, there was time for both the Philippine government and international responders to better prepare for this storm. Unlike an earthquake, there is a lead-up. I read in news reports that gasoline shortages are widespread, power is out in critical locations (hospitals), and equipment to clear roads of debris are not available. These are logistical square ones, and while I am not on the ground and therefore cannot know exactly what the realities are, it seems to me that having ready-to-go gas reserves, generators, and equipment that reflect the potential scope of the disaster should be a given. I understand contextual sensitivity is key. Haiti pre-earthquake could never be expected to effectively handle the scope of its disaster, there simply weren't enough dumptrucks, excavators and bulldozers in the entire country to do the job that needed doing. But in the case of the Philippines, I don't know if the same holds true - it is a country intimately acquainted with all manners of natural disasters - but even if it does, the prep time allowed by a hurricane could have been used to rally international support and preparation so as to avoid or minimize very predictable post-disaster problems. Again, I'm hesitant to condemn outright a situation I am very far removed from so I am the first to admit I could be missing something important with this critique, but there is frustration over repeating lessons that do not seem to be learned, or, if they are, are being learned slowly, and incorporated in often sub-par ways.

The bit I of the article I found the most important, however, was the point made at the end:

"When journalists focus on looting and slow aid delivery, they miss the point. Information is aid. Their reports are part of weaving the fabric of a global Filipino community back together after a typhoon tore through their hometowns. By showing communities coming together, journalists can amplify the dynamics that save lives.

It is time to look at how effectively international organizations are supporting a normally well-oiled (but now struggling) domestic response capacity, not how international aid shipments are arriving late. It is time to ask why the cellular networks are not back and running, so that the diaspora can reunite with family and send money via mobile banking. It is time to make a request of financial institutions like Western Union to reduce their surcharges on sending money to the Philippines.

When the crisis abates, it will also be time to ask if this operation is a first peek at the future of disaster response: when international aid gets criticized not for being late, but for needing to do more to help capable local responders, companies and communities get stuff done."

Preach! Not only does this point clearly highlight the essential element of local people working to solve their own problems - a cause close to my heart - but it also shifts the focus. I've often felt that the spotlight in disasters - be they natural or man-made (war, terrorism) tends to paint local people as somewhat powerless - victims - and international aspiring do-gooders as their rescuers. This is built into the very lexicon of aid work - I've never cared for the term "beneficiary". To be fair, this isn't entirely false - international aid workers, search and rescue teams and their supporting donors do help people and save lives - but it creates a massive blindspot when it fails to accurately show how local people are not simply victims, but indeed their own rescuers, and they are that before the internationals arrive and will continue to be after the internationals leave. Supporting local actors and the systems and opportunities that allow them - the people that will remain - to do the best they can do for themselves, both via media reporting and international programming, should take front and center in any aid response. It is the local context and the people living in it that is ultimately the true determinant of whether lasting normalcy will return following any catastrophe. The international community certainly plays a valuable role, but to focus the spotlight primarily on its successes and failures - which subtly suggests that the end result ultimately rides on its shoulders - is misleading and does a great disservice to those both most affected by disaster, and most invested in recovering from it.

- - -

Update - read this:

Jonathan Katz - What We Shouldn't Be Doing in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda

Jonathan is a journalist who was on the ground when the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince and after having heard him give a talk in London this year, I agree with a lot of how he looks at things.


  1. Fair points.

    I am a Canadian who does occasional work in humanitarian aid. The only places where expats should take the lead is when the local population absolutely cannot manage themselves at all. For example, refugee camps, *extremely* poor countries, and wars are all situations where outside human resources are required.

    Right now in the Philippines there is a *a lot* of local capacity and it would be much cheaper and more efficient to support this, rather than flying in people who will leave in a couple months.

    This is why I am supporting World Vision. Virtually their entire staff in the Philippines are locals who live and work in the poor communities. They have been in the country for a long time, and they will stay there for years to come. Some other NGOs are flying in huge teams of expats who have never even been to the Philippines before.

    There may be a place for expats, but they should focus on support, not leadership, in this situation.

    Rant over.

    1. Agree with you on most of this, but it is worth pointing out that even if deeply unstable and compromised situations, local actors can still make an impact largely independent of international support. For example, the work of CRC in the DRC - - or CEDAC in post-war Burundi (grassroots DDR that managed to avoid many of the problems that plagues international DDR programming). The trick, in my view, is finding these people / groups and helping amplify their effect without compromising their effectiveness in the process.