CONNOLLY: Preparing for the future

International aid organizations should help ensure that poor nations have the means to cope with disasters on their own

Typhoon Haiyan, the recent mega-storm that struck the Philippines, has been an enormous tragedy. It has killed thousands of people, has left 4 million people displaced and has, according to the United Nations, affected 11 million people overall. The international aid community should rush to supply much-needed food, water, shelter and medical care. But to have a long-term impact on the Philippines’ well-being, these aid agencies must defer to local authorities, and should help establish stable institutions prepared to handle future disasters. If the aid agencies sidestep local authorities in their effort to bring help to those affected, they could be laying the groundwork for another potential disaster.

Natural disasters tend to affect poor areas much more than rich ones. Haiti’s poor infrastructure exacerbated the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake that struck the country: collapsing buildings and other structures caused thousands of deaths. In contrast, the earthquake that struck California in 1989, which recorded about the same magnitude as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, killed just 63 people. The disparity of resources between Haiti and the United States largely accounts for the staggering difference in death tolls for the two events. Whereas Haiti lacks the money, the health care system and the political capacity to respond quickly to a natural disaster, thus necessitating international aid response, the U.S. is blessed enough to have all of these advantages.

Aid agencies do a good job of addressing immediate needs, such as blankets, food and water. But they often do not equip the affected area with the tools to handle another disaster. In Haiti, thousands of doctors and other medical professionals rushed to Port-au-Prince following the 2010 earthquake, providing medical care to the injured and dying. In doing so, however, the international community marginalized Haiti’s own weak medical system. The earthquake had decimated Haiti’s hospitals, and by providing medical care without Haitian assistance, international doctors inadvertently prevented Haiti’s medical system from recovering, meaning this underfunded system was left completely unprepared to deal with Haiti’s dire health needs. Should another disaster strike Haiti, the international community will again need to rush to Haiti’s aid, setting up a dangerous chain of dependency.

Well-intentioned aid has the potential to actually harm a country. Those who have read Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” — and to those who have not, I cannot recommend it highly enough — will recall Paul Farmer’s description of Haiti’s pig problem. Scientists, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had discovered that African swine fever had spread to the Dominican Republic. Fearing that the fever would spread and harm the pork industry in Haiti and the United States, the U.S. paid to have Haitian pigs slaughtered, and replaced them with healthy Iowa pigs. The U.S. thought that it was giving the farmers a great deal — the Iowa pigs were plumper and healthier than their Haitian counterparts — but the arrangement ended in disaster. The Iowa pigs were more expensive to maintain, and many were vulnerable to environmental factors in Haiti. Countless pigs died. And so because the aid givers lacked a knowledge of local conditions in Haiti, poor Haitian farmers were left without their prized livestock. Because of incidents such as this, international aid organizations should be sure to incorporate local input from the areas that they serve.

Aid should have short-term and long-term components. The short-term relief gets most of the attention, but long-term reform efforts could go a long way toward improving the situations in these countries, and improving preparedness for the next disaster. These aid agencies should apply this lesson to their efforts in the Philippines. They should focus on working with local doctors, as opposed to around them, in an effort to strengthen the Filipino health care system. Similarly, when reconstructing buildings, the agencies should focus on constructing buildings with sound infrastructure, as opposed to cheap buildings prone to collapse at the next storm. They should also be sure to incorporate local knowledge and opinion, for no foreigner can have complete knowledge of the conditions on the ground in these countries. These small steps can help the Philippines, just as they could help other poor countries, so that the next natural disaster is not quite so bad. And someday, when a storm or earthquake or typhoon hits one of these places, maybe the aid agencies will be unnecessary. Perhaps these countries will no longer need their help.

John Connolly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

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