Sunday, March 27, 2011

Post-disaster aid to rich countries: the case of Katrina

Major natural disasters offer countries an opportunity to rise above the normal standards of international interaction. For example, a large number of countries offered generous help in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Some, such as Cuba, offer aid purely as a public relations ploy, with no expectation that it will be accepted. Conversely, some such aid may be rejected, for similar symbolic reasons.

Still, that leaves a lot of countries. Wikipedia has a page on the international response to hurricane Katrina, listing pledges from more than 100 countries and international organizations besides Cuba, including such unlikely candidates as Vietnam (pledged $100,000), Mongolia ($50,000), and Albania ($308,000).

Interestingly, most of that aid was not claimed by the United States. A Washington Post article by John Solomon and Spenser Hsu, written two years after the hurricane, noted that "Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil."

Sometimes the problem was aid was earmarked for specific purposes where it was not needed. At times bureaucratic red tape was the problem. In addition, some "valuable supplies and services -- such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships -- were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them." Indeed, Administration officials admitted in 2006 "that they were ill prepared to coordinate and distribute foreign aid and that only about half the $126 million received had been put to use."

Some of the problems can be chalked up to incompetence and ineptitude, but it is clear from the article that the logistics of handling and coordinating all these aid offers taxed well-meaning officials to their limit. The article provides sobering reading for anyone thinking about how best to (or even whether to) provide aid to Japan in its current crisis.

One clear conclusion to be drawn: well-established non-governmental organizations with some local institutional infrastructure and specific preparedness in disaster response — most obviously, the Red Cross — are most likely to be able to put disaster relief aid to good use; more so, even, than a government as rich, powerful, and (generally) well-run as that of the United States.

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