Boxing Day in 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Around 230,000 people in developing countries in the region died in the tsunami, the greatest megadisaster in recent history.
In remembering the thousands who were so suddenly swept away in the 2004 tsunami, it is important to note that disaster risk reduction programs are part of overall approaches to help strengthen the human security of the poor in Asia. As a general rule, disaster risk reduction programs are pro-poor. There is an obvious reason why this is true: rich countries and rich people can afford expenditures that improve their national and personal security. Poor countries and poor people have no choice but to live with much more risk.
A major UN report earlier this year, Risk and poverty in a changing climate, drew attention to the disproportionate impact of disasters on the poor. Amongst other things, the UN report made the following key points:
• Global disaster risk is highly concentrated in poor countries.
• Most disaster mortality and asset destruction is concentrated in very small areas exposed to infrequent but extreme hazards.
• Poor communities suffer a disproportionate share of disaster loss.
To set out some of the main lessons following the 2004 tsunami disaster that Sisira Jayasuriya and I listed in our forthcoming book on the tsunami, I summarised four key conclusions in The Canberra Times on 24 December. The four main points were as follows:
• The international community needs to work harder at cooperating with institutions in developing countries. Local institutions are important, but so are major national institutions (such as the Badan Rekonstruksi dan Rehabilitasi, the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, in Indonesia).
• Adequate funding is vital.
• The way that money is spent is extremely important. Depending on how the money is spent, assistance can arrive quickly, or might take months or years to arrive.
• Most important: assistance agencies need to make more efforts to “Go local” in designing programs to build up grassroots resilience in Asia. Efforts at the local community level, both before disasters and afterwards, are extremely important. Suahasil Nazara and Budy Resosudarmo discussed this matter in their recent paper on the tsunami published by the ADB Institution in Tokyo.
There is, unfortunately, no easy web link to the article in The Canberra Times so it is reproduced here:
OPINION: The Canberra Times, 24 December 2009 p.15
LEARNING AND HELPING AFTER BOXING DAY TSUNAMI
Donors need to plan before disasters rather than just respond, Peter McCawley writes …
Five years have passed since the huge Boxing Day Tsunami brought devastation to 12 countries in Asia in 2004. In villages and towns and along the coast of North Sumatra life is now slowly returning to normal.
The Asian tsunami was the greatest megadisaster in recent times. The death toll was stunning. Almost 170,000 people were swept away in Aceh alone. In other countries in the region such as Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, another 60,000 people perished.
For those who lost loved ones, five years is not long. The pain is still raw. Almost everyone in the areas hit by the tsunami lost family or friends or neighbours.
During a visit to Aceh a few weeks ago, the young driver of the airport courtesy car wanted to talk to me about the disaster. Among other things I asked him if he had lost any friends or family in the tsunami. ‘Both of my parents died, along with my wife,’ was his quiet reply.
In the aftermath of the tsunami, national governments in Asia and the international community announced large aid programs. Best estimates are that Asian governments and communities provided close to $US 4 billion in assistance and that the international community promised another $US 14 billion more.
The result was that the tsunami aid effort, at a total of perhaps $US 18 billion, was one of the largest humanitarian programs organised in the developing world. How effective was the provision of the aid? What lessons were learned about how to respond to megadisasters?
There is no easy reply to the question of how effective the post-tsunami program. The answer depends on what the objectives of the aid effort were thought to be. The hundreds of different official and non-government donors who flooded into the disaster-stricken countries had many different objectives. The effective provision of relief was only one of these objectives.
In purely humanitarian terms, the widespread aid effort was clearly a remarkable success. Despite a myriad of logistics problems, and despite much initial confusion, a great deal was achieved. Many lives were saved. Much long-term assistance was delivered. Not all, but many of the individual aid activities that different donors supported achieved the hoped-for results. Many specific lessons were learned about the best ways to provide aid after a disaster. Dozens of detailed reports were prepared containing lists of lessons about all of the aspects of disaster response that donors worked on.
Sifting through this maze of reports, four main lessons stand out.
First, in dealing with disasters, the international community needs to work harder at cooperating with institutions at both the local and national level in developing countries.
At the local level, community organisations are first to provide immediate assistance in the wake of disasters. In some cases it can take days, weeks and months for help to arrive. Mostly, the fastest relief after the 2004 tsunami came at the local level.
At the national level, strong national-government agencies are often more effective in coordinating disaster assistance than are international agencies. Strong national agencies generally have a much better understanding of local laws and organisations than international organisations do.
Second, adequate funding is vital. Much publicity was given to the large amounts of aid provided by governments and the public from rich countries following the Asian tsunami. And it is true that the headline promise of $14 billion that rich countries promised was large compared to the funds often provided for other international humanitarian disasters.
However there are no generally-accepted benchmarks for the funding of disaster assistance programs across the world so the amounts of assistance provided varies.
At one extreme, international support after the Cyclone Nargis disaster in Myanmar in which around 130,000 people died was meagre (well under $US 1 billion spent through international agencies). At the other extreme, over $US 60 billion was provided by the US Government in response to the crisis following Hurricane Katrina in 2004 (around 2000 deaths).
It is clear is that the provision of funds helps greatly. Adequate funding does not guarantee that all aid will be effective – but it is clear that programs that are grossly-underfunded are unlikely to succeed.
A third lesson is that way aid money is spent is important. Some forms of aid, such as direct cash grants and cash-for-work schemes, provide fast support to survivors of disasters. Other forms of aid, such as large-scale housing and infrastructure projects, can take years.
Donors often prefer to provide considerable amounts of aid (such as food and clothing, medicine, and construction projects) in kind. They say that they have more control over the use of aid provided in kind and they hope that misuse of the aid will be minimised.
But there are significant disadvantages in the provision of aid in the form of goods. Not only does it sometimes slow down the provision of urgently-needed assistance but it is also harder to ensure that the right types of aid get to the right people at the right time.
Further, there is often a temptation for aid donors to build showcase projects. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, many donors talked generously of the need to “Build back better” as they embarked upon the construction of high-quality roads, expensive hospitals and well-equipped government offices.
The risk with showcase projects is that they will become white elephants once donors go home. Too often, the projects are difficult to maintain. Simple projects that are more sustainable are more likely to suit local needs.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all is the need to “Go local” in building up protection against disasters in poor countries in Asia. The first level of resilience needs to be at the grassroots level. Much can be done to strengthen security for poor people in Asia by identifying disaster risks and drawing up simple community action plans.
The current approach of many aid agencies is to take the passive approach of waiting until disasters occur before responding. But prevention is better than cure. The focus of donors needs to shift from responding to disasters after the event to grassroots planning before disasters strike.
Peter McCawley is Visiting Fellow, Indonesia Project, ANU. He and Professor Sisira Jayasuriya of LaTrobe University have recently completed a book about tsunami aid in Asia.