Boxing Day 2004, the day of the Asian tsunami, was a day of hundreds of
thousands of personal tragedies. Some images stick in the mind:
camcorder footage of killer waves lashing violently against the shore,
tragic final pictures of holidaymakers taken moments before the waves
overpowered them, and the incredible story of Tilly Smith, the 10
year-old schoolgirl from Oxshott who, remembering her geography
lessons, realised that the receding sea heralded a tsunami and raised
the alarm, allowing her family to flee to safety.
The tsunami was a natural tragedy: it reminds us of the awesome force
of nature, and of humanity’s fragility and vulnerability. But there is
a second tragedy about the tsunami: that despite the heroic efforts of
local and international humanitarian workers, the relief and
reconstruction effort was marred by examples of duplication,
inefficiency and waste. The aftermath of the tsunami highlighted a
brutal truth: that as a world we do a remarkably poor job of
translating our immediate surge of compassion and cash into effective
action to save lives and rebuild shattered communities.
For example, international agencies often failed to work effectively
alongside the response of local people and governments. In some cases,
the compassion of outsiders smacked headlong into the cold realities of
local power politics. The poor, as ever, were last in line, as local
power-brokers and village supremos got first dibs on the aid that came
Some well-meaning people sent Father Christmas outfits and even Viagra to areas hit by the deluge – gifts which were met with incredulity by families who had just seen their homes washed away and who wanted water purifiers and essential medicines. This misguided ‘help’ was worse than useless, blocking up ports and airports and stretching already-strained logistics systems to breaking-point.
On the other hand, some countries refused to accept any help at all. The wicked regime in Burma refused to accept help, and covered up the number of casualties. And even India turned down offers of assistance.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Times of crisis often bring out the best in the human spirit. Public generosity and the professionalism of relief workers saved countless lives after the tsunami. And after the Bam earthquake of 2003, Iran waived visa restrictions on foreign relief workers for five days – letting in people even from America (the ‘Great Satan’) and Israel.
But at its worst, our response to disasters is confused and inefficient. So how can we make this better?
Above all, we need to let governments and civil society in poor countries take the lead in responding to disasters that affect their own people. They have the local knowledge and the ultimate responsibility to deliver effective relief, and they can be held to account locally. When the international community steps in, we need much better coordination between the myriad of bilateral players, UN agencies and NGOs. There are concerns that EU coordination mechanisms sometimes fail to work with those of the UN – a confusion that needs to be put right. We need proper needs assessments to make sure we bring in the right aid at the right time. The private sector has a vital role to play here. After the tsunami, the logistics company TNT made its resources available to the United Nations World Food Programme. This sort of partnership should be encouraged. When the dust has settled, we need proper independent impact evaluation of our aid, so that we can celebrate and reward good performance, and learn from our mistakes.
As individuals, we need to respond to disasters with our heads as well as our hearts. In most cases, this means giving cash to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal and leading NGOs, rather than sending goods. And when we do give cash, we need more flexible funding systems. The unprecedented response to the tsunami raised some £3,900 per affected person – yet the Bangladesh floods of 2004, which left more than a million people homeless, generated just £1.63 per head. We need more sustained funding for these silent emergencies. To his credit, Hilary Benn made a start at tackling this issue when he was running DfID. And we need urgent action to defuse the ticking time bomb of drug-resistant viruses incubating in the developing world – viruses that respect no boundaries and may soon come to threaten us all.
We must think long-term. This means getting serious about tackling climate change: the poorest countries, who bear least responsibility for global warming, will be hit first and hardest. And we need to prepare for disasters, rather than just responding to them. At present, for every pound we spend on disaster response, we spend only a few pence on mitigation and preparedness.
Finally, poor country governments need to get their policies right so as to foster growth and wealth creation. A quake strikes in the developed world – tens die. The same quake hits a poor country – thousands die. Growth and development are the best safety net against natural disasters.
The sad fact is that there will be another major disaster, most likely in the developing world, and soon. It’s a matter of when, not if. It could be tomorrow, next week, or next month. Unless we step up reform of the international disaster response system, we can be sure of two things: that the people who bear the brunt of the suffering will be the poorest, and that more people will die then necessary because of a confused and poorly-coordinated international response.