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Natural disaster assistance -- dead or live aid?
Saturday, 10 October 2009 13:13

Tsunamis in Samoa, American Somoa and Tonga, typhoons in the Philippines and Mekong region, and earthquakes in Indonesia.  These are stark reminders of the vulnerability of the Asia-Pacific region to natural disasters which are in fact increasing in their frequency. 

These natural disasters are also reminders of the assistance that these countries need to cope.  But is such assistance "live aid" or "dead aid"?  You will recall that in her book "Dead Aid" Dambisa Moyo argues that six decades of Western aid has itself been an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.

Developing countries are struck disproportionately by natural disasters -- what John Stuart Mill (1878) called Nature's "ïnjustice, ruin, and death".  Such disasters take many forms -- droughts, earthquakes, epidemics, floods, windstorms and so on.  And they are increasingly linked to global warming, the product of more than two centuries of Western industrialisation. 

The lion's share of volcanic activity and El Nino-related events occur in developing countries.  Four-fifths of the planet's volcanic activity occurs in the so-called Circum-Pacific Volcanic Belt, within which are located many Asian and Latin American countries.  The droughts that regularly follow the onset of El Nino years are concentrated in Southern Africa and South Asia.  The El Nino-related "malarial fringe" is located along coastal regions on South America and South Asia.  According to the OECD, the five countries with the highest number of disasters during the 1990-2002 period are: the US (655), India (459), China (420), the Philippines (355) and Indonesia (276).

And what's worse is that the poor in any society which is exposed to natural disasters will suffer more!  Poor people live in lower quality housing (like the favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro); they face vliquidity constraints that limit their access to savings or insurance in the face of risk; they cannot as readily escape disaster zones; and their human capital is lower and more vulnerable to shocks. 

In developing countries, the poor live in a perpetual state of insecurity.  They can be buffeted by all manner of shocks, especially if their governments have poorly developed to deal with disasters.  And environmental degradation, irregular urban settlements and weak regulatory practices (including poor enforcement of building standards) can make them much more vulnerable and less resilient to a natural disasters.  In several cases, environmental degradation provoked flash floods, landslides and debris flows.  And earthquakes have had far more disastrous consequences where building codes are not rigorously enforced, as in China in 2008, Turkey in 1999 or Mexico City in 1985.

What to do before and after?  The keys are:
(i) risk prevention, actions to reduce the likelihood of adverse risks occurring at all, like not living in disaster-risk areas; 
(ii) risk mitigation, actions intended to reduce the damages associated with risks should they occur.  This could include diversifying income sources, or taking out insurance.  Governments should monitor and enforce building codes and standards. 
(iii) risk coping, actions taken after the fact, like the humanitarian response.

International assistance can play a very helpful role in dealing with natural disasters.  Indeed, the amount of aid channelled into disaster relief has increased several fold in recent decades.

To what extent is international assistance for disaster relief "dead aid"?  While it is clear that such aid does help disaster affected people, it is also clear that there is much corrupion in the delivery of food, water, medecins and shelter.  Indeed, some assistance never even makes its way to the disaster-affected people.  Natural disaster-prone developing countries may be the most affected by such corruption, but there are many reports of such corruption in the United States, including after Katarina.

In its report "Mapping the Risks of Corruption in Humanitarian Action", Transparency International identifies the areas at risk in the complex system of planning, contracts and delivery mechanisms in humanitarian assistance.  Procurement, logistics and payroll are most vulnerable to corruption.  The sectors with particularly high potential risks are shelter, food aid and health care..  Although these are the most visible areas, corruption risks also arise where systems of accountability and transparency are weak.  Corruption risks may also involve non-financial gains such as enhanced personal reputation, political capital or access to a service, including sexual favours extorted in return for assistance./

So, most regrettably, it seems that some natural disaster assitance is also "dead aid".   

Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo.  Allen Lane, 2009
Natural Disasters and Adaptive Capacity, by Jeff Dayton-Johnson.  OECD Development Centre.  Working Paper No.237.  August 2004.
Mapping the Risks of Corruption in Humanitarian Action, Transparency International.

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