Disaster & Development: Joy Sun on TED

Development is inextricably intertwined with Emergency Management

In my last post, I mentioned a little bit about how Emergency Management is affected by different fields–especially Development. It turns out that the people most vulnerable to disasters are often the poorest people because they can’t afford to live in safe areas or in safe homes. On the other side of the coin, when disasters do strike an area, the disaster often damages the poor household more than the rich one. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you are a very poor tenant farmer in Africa. You can’t afford to live on the high-quality land, so you have to tend rockier soil on a hillside. You have one donkey with which to plow and a mud hut. Over the years, more and more people have cut down more and more trees so now, when a heavy rain hits, the water rushes down the slopes unimpeded and washes your crops away (and the top inch of soil which is the best part. So now the soil will yield even less and you will have to clear more trees in order to get enough profit to survive. But that’s a sustainability problem.) Without those crops, you will starve this winter, so you have to sell your donkey in order to survive. Furthermore, part of your mud hut was damaged.The next spring, you don’t have a donkey so you can’t till as much so you don’t harvest as much so you are even less secure than you were. The next flood might kill you. (As it is, you might have to pull your children out of school–if they were lucky enough to go–so that they can help you farm. And an illiterate family has more problems down the road. That’s a different kind of development problem.)  Meanwhile, your slightly richer neighbor–who has two oxen which are much better at plowing and a cement house instead of a mud hut is left with an undamaged house and perhaps one ox instead of no donkey. Which is a much better place to be.

Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.
Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.

These principles can be scaled up to country or regional levels. A poor government often can’t invest in good public infrastructure like high-quality dams, more hospitals, or public awareness campaigns. They might struggle to house the poorest of the poor or refugees or provide security for their citizenry. (Refugees are a whole ‘nother deeply vulnerable population that we can talk about later. Violence profoundly affects both development and crisis management).

So what does that have to do with this video you posted?

Traditionally, development and humanitarian aid has been of the “teach a man to fish” variety. For good reason. Professional aid supported by donors (like you or even banks and countries) builds or props up needed infrastructure like wells, clinics, vaccines, family planning, education, and food security. These are things that don’t get done if you simply give cash to poor people.

But, research is beginning to favor micro-investments, direct cash donations, and the like. It turns out that poor people who receive cash overwhelmingly use it to better their lives. They do not drink or smoke it away. They do not buy luxuries, like we have thought for so many years.

[I’m sure you can think of someone from your neighborhood who is on food stamps and just bought a new car. I can too. But those people aren’t the extremely chronic poor that we’re talking about. There will always be abusers of the system. But there will always be people who need a little outside help too. (Personally, I find it easier to let God or the Universe or someone else judge between them.) But let’s leave that argument to the side for now.]

Here is an experienced aid worker describing how direct cash transfers can be better than third-party directed aid. 1. Families buy what they really need (not what you think they need)–like maternity care or home improvements (which make them less vulnerable to calamity). 2. Much lower administrative costs mean more money gets to the users. 3. Cash infusions are often better than donations. This is true during disasters too. People like the Red Cross and your local disaster coordinator would much rather receive cash than donated clothing because we can use the cash to buy exactly what we need (like lumber or satellite phones for rescue teams or pens) and we can buy it from local businesses (which help them recover). Supporting local business has been proven again and again in both development and disasters to be of critical help.

Note, she also makes the point that we can’t give up the third-party directed aid. Families won’t buy the equipment to make vaccines or HIV blood tests; we will always need to encourage public infrastructure. But, we should not neglect the human. He and she are the most able to decide what he and she need.

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