Disaster Aid & Relief: Government Responsibility or Private Funds?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent

The question of Government pouring millions of dollars into disaster relief is increasingly coming into focus as major economies face difficulties in supporting their own citizens. The seemingly endless tragic disasters that we see on the tv news has also contributed to a sense of donor fatigue. This prevailing attitude has been summed up by one individual in a petition to the UK Government who wrote: “The Government should not spend UK taxes on international disaster relief. It should focus on relieving UK poverty, leaving charitable gifts for non-UK matters to individual choice and conscience. The Government’s responsibility is to the people of the UK…It should be left to the generosity of the UK population to decide whether to provide financial or material support to victims of natural disasters and other catastrophes around the world”. No one would disagree that a nation’s Government must first care for the needs of its own citizens before assisting those in other areas of the world, but should the Government ignore those needs altogether, and trust that the generosity of the general population is enough to fill the gap?

In this context, provided above, it is interesting to put the Federal response to a recent natural disaster that happened in our nation under the spotlight. On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, causing a massive amount of destruction and leaving thousands of residents homeless. Within four days of the hurricane President Bush signed a $10.5 billion dollar relief package. However the disaster relief response was widely criticized. New Orleans’ emergency operations chief blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the slow response: “ I haven’t seen a single FEMA guy. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans”. Various emergency service departments such as FEMA were hindered by difficulties getting requests through the chain of command. In fact it was the Non Government Organizations (NGO’s) and local Government agencies who provided the most effective response as they were far more flexible in their approach. Curiously enough, despite apparently having no problem with deploying aid to help victims of foreign disasters, the Bush Government was slow to accept offers of help it received from abroad. In a Washington Post article dated April 29, 2007, it was reported that of the $854 million in aid offered by various countries, only $40 million (less than 5%) had actually been spent on reconstruction or to help disaster victims. It would appear that President Bush suffered from his own case of donor fatigue.

But it is not only in the United States that NGO’s have proven to be much more effective at providing disaster relief to needy citizens. An excellent paper published by the Asian Disaster Reduction Center in 2002 outlines many of the advantages NGO’s have over Governments when playing a role in disaster relief: “Their (NGO’s) organizational flexibility, informal work style, and close engagement with grassroots communities enable them to deliver services to people at lower costs. They supplement government initiatives by acting as a conduit between development programmes and beneficiaries, informing and sensitizing people about their rights and entitlements. Their ability to mobilise people and understand people’s concerns enables them to better articulate problems encountered by people”. The paper highlights the growing role played by NGO’s, particularly in poorer countries, and crucially how they can operate in tandem with Government to provide effective disaster relief from a broad level (i.e. infrastructure) right down to grassroots initiatives, such as providing and distributing medical aid, and then providing medium to longer term support by setting up day care centres and the restoration of community assets. Naturally, you would expect an NGO authored report to heavily promote the benefits and the positive role played by these Organizations but should they be encouraged to play an increasing role in disaster relief at the expense of Government?

Years of war, corruption, and inefficient Government have resulted in Afghanistan being one of the poorest nations on Earth. In this dangerous nation NGO’s are only capable of playing an extremely small role. As such it is members of the armed forces of foreign nations such as the USA who are attempting to rebuild schools, and engage with locals to defeat the terrorists and hopefully leave behind a stronger nation when their troops withdraw. However, where the allied forces, and more importantly, the Afghani Government, are failing to provide the support that locals need the Taliban is using its resources (largely the proceeds of drug supply) to fill the void. The same thing can be seen in Palestine where Hamas was able to become the Government largely because it was providing the functions of Government anyway. These examples show that Governments in poor nations must guard against an abdication of their responsibilities. NGO’s can play an effective role in rebuilding an area affected by natural disaster but they must do so in tandem with the State.

In summary, it is strong Governments that must provide the bulk of disaster aid if for no other reason than to show that they are capable of caring for the needs of their citizens. As we have seen, in poorer countries in particular, irresponsible and ineffective Governments can leave a vacuum that can be too easily filled by hostile groups. Governments must act quickly and decisively in responding to the needs of their own citizens and to foreigners, partly in order to prevent the negative consequences already outlined. However, it must also be recognized by Government officials that NGO’s are capable of playing an important role as a partner in the overall relief effort.



Click to access 6.pdf


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