THE BLOG

Commentary on Disaster Relief - What I've Learned from Nepal, Haiti and Other Natural Disasters

05/04/2015 08:07 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Yesterday the press reported that Kathmandu in Nepal had shut down its only major airport to large aircraft because it could not handle the traffic. Sadly this is a problem that occurs with every major disaster especially in underdeveloped countries like Nepal.

I saw the situation firsthand in Haiti after the earthquake there. Although I did not arrive until a few months later, my contacts on the ground showed me piles and piles of containers stranded on the docks and in the airport in Port Au Prince. When I asked what was in all of them they showed me a few. A couple were filled with heavy wool blankets -- Haiti is tropical, usually over 90 degree -- wool blankets are hardly necessary. Other containers contained such things as canned soup, also hardly usable in the heat, while still others contained piles and piles of light bulbs, while there was minimal electricity available, and others were filled to the brim with stuffed animals that had gotten moldy in the tropical moisture and heat. A nice thought but hardly priority number 1.

The sad fact is that in these disasters, many organizations and governments overload the local facilities with non-essential goods, thus causing congestion and causing the local facilities to come to a halt. This results in important supplies and personnel being unable to get through the chaos. Again, in Haiti, we saw container loads of antibiotics and other medicines that had rotted in the tropical sun because they were stuck in the congestion and never made it to those in need.

This also happened after the Indian Ocean Tsunami and every other major disaster that afflicts small, underdeveloped countries, and it happens because of three basic reasons:

  1. There is no central organizational authority to schedule and manage the transport of essential supplies and personnel to stricken areas, and there is usually very limited local capacity to distribute supplies once they arrive;
  2. Many organizations feel it is their mission to immediately react and start shipping supplies more often than not without regard to any reasonable analysis of what the individual situation requires. They often have "standardized" packets or they ship what they have (ergo wool blankets to Haiti) rather than studying the local situation and responding accordingly. Many of these organizations mean well but their execution is faulty. Still, others do this simply to get a foothold so they can use their presence in fund raising. You can see this online on many fund raising websites which "trumpet" that they have already shipped a ton of supplies to the disaster zone and need your dollars to ship more.
  3. Finally, the really large organizations must work through the local government, which in many of these countries is, at best unprepared and inadequately trained, and at worst corrupt. This either results in large amounts of cash disappearing or necessary supplies being siphoned off for resale. We saw this in Haiti, too, where we personally observed and photographed 50 pound bags of rice stamped with the names of two major organizations (which will go nameless here) being sold on the street for exorbitant prices.

It is a sad fact that disasters often feed greed. It is also a sad fact that the organizations on the ground in these countries which are really best suited to deal with the tragedy of the disaster are shunted aside so the "big guys" can have their name everywhere.

Here is one true example... again in Haiti. While Port Au Prince was totally congested and non-functional in the days immediately following the quake there, one local organization supported by World of Children Award quickly mobilized, chartered a large yacht in Panama, filled it with food and medicines for the children in their care and sailed it into a private yacht club away from the chaos of Port Au Prince. This resulted in securing the safety and lives of hundreds of children who otherwise might have been subject to disease, malnutrition or worse.

So how are these post-disaster issues to be resolved? What is needed is a global master plan for dealing with emergencies created by natural disasters, because they happen often and all over the globe. Independent organizations and governments should all have to organize and stage their efforts through this one agency... probably the UN because it has the largest worldwide footprint. The UN should create a Disaster Response Agency and get all nations and major relief organizations to subscribe to their leadership. This Agency should be staffed by analysts who can immediately determine the highest priority needs in any disaster by communicating directly with smaller local NGOs on the ground in the disaster area because they are more likely to have a finger on the pulse of the situation and be able to provide real-time information. The Agency will need logistical experts who can instantly plan and execute the movement of the highest priority items leaving the less important ones for later and should have access to all the kinds of materials and personnel that might be needed in different disaster situations. The new Agency should be totally fluent with all local NGOs who may be on the ground and should use them as conduits to getting aid to those most in need as quickly as possible because they will have the capability, the knowledge of the area, and understand the culture, people and language. Finally this Agency should have oversight of and manage all disaster relief funds flowing to the area to help avoid as much "looting" as possible.

There is never a perfect time to start something like this but it is sorely needed and there is no time like the present. Meanwhile you can support actual people and organizations on the ground in Nepal doing the hard work through this website: https://www.worldofchildren.org/nepal-earthquake-relief/