Time to Rethink Aid Efforts

Posted: June 6, 2012 by Laurence McLean in Climate Change, Development, Disaster, Disaster Risk Reduction

Statistics indicate that, unfortunately, ‘natural’ disasters are on the increase.  Irrespective of the uncertainty associated with predicting when and where they will occur, we must do more to prepare for future shocks. In 2010, 110 million people were affected by disasters. There is a pressing need for more pre-emptive policies i.e. actions taken before the disaster strikes. Only through these actions will it be possible to curtail unnecessary suffering and realign both poor and rich countries towards a greener more equitable development path.

The humanitarian case for pre-emptive action is obvious; the most powerful example is in Africa. Evidence suggests that drought-affected famine prone sub-Saharan Africa will significantly benefit from an increase in aid being channelled before the onset of disaster, potentially stopping famine altogether. The crucial problem is convincing people and governments to help to give aid and fund programmes to the same level as they do for big dramatic disaster events. There seems to be two reasons why a substantial preparedness and mitigation disaster- climate change fund does not exist, and why more isn’t done by governments in this regard.

A common political belief is that acting in anticipation is based on flawed economics relying on too much uncertainty. Arguments based on uncertainty don’t hold up; take climate change as an example. The sobering reality of more extreme disaster events and effects of global warming is already being felt, yet sceptics question the role of humans in causing it. But even though uncertainties pervade science, if a doctor is treating a sick patient but doesn’t know the precise cause, would he then simply give up attempting to treat the person? Clearly that would be ridiculous and dangerous. Furthermore, Economic evidence points to the contrary, this is just one example. A report compiled by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) predicts that an $40 billion investment in disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies would have likely saved approaching $300 billion in global economic losses from disasters in 1990’s, equating to a $7 return for each dollar spent… you don’t have to be an economist to see the clear benefits.

But even where economic advantages are acknowledged, politicians may still not support such measures. Policies framed with foresight and anticipation in mind will probably not bring evidence of instant benefits. The second pitfall lies in psychology. Government policies attuned to preventing or reducing disasters impacts and effects of climate change are nearly always seen as politically toxic. Policy-making is often constrained by a ‘politician’s mentality’.  Only a brave politician will make the argument for spending significant amounts of money on projects that are unlikely to bring tangible benefits for 10 or 20 years, or even longer – especially in resource deprived poor countries or western countries experiencing drives for austerity.

There is also a bottom-up fundraising problem. History suggests public and decision-makers need to be emotionally engaged in people’s suffering via the media to give significant money and resources, unfortunately “it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought” (Oscar Wilde, 1891), or in this case sympathy with people’s vulnerability to extreme hazards before it quickly becomes a disaster. Therefore the NGO’s which currently fundraise under the banner of increasing people’s resilience do not get anywhere near the amount of money that is potentially attainable in post-disaster situation (For example the Asian tsunami in 2004).

A more healthy outlook for to more effectively reduce disaster impacts is to believe in a more ‘rational altruism’, where resilience programmes are generously supported, and widely portrayed as being vital for both humanitarian and economic reasons – it may be counterintuitive to tackle something which in short-term you can’t see its effects of, but emotions should be stirred by the implications of doing nothing before people fall victims, and the predictable disaster pornography begins.

When it comes to policymaking and fundraising, we must promote delayed gratification. Governments and NGO’s need to unite in convincing people that, when it comes to disasters and climate change, it is greatly beneficial to have rational altruism so concerted action can be taken to prevent. This of course is better than any medicine and can stop post-disaster relief efforts becoming the cruel normality.

Eastern Africa, which is affected by an on-going drought and famine which started in 2011, reportedly the worst in six decades, would massively benefit from a preventative approach based around global disaster fund.

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