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Learning lessons from past disasters

By David Frum, CNN contributor
  • David Frum: Humanitarian groups learned lessons from massive aid to tsunami victims
  • He says the aid did much good, but there were also downsides
  • He says there are risks of uneven distribution of aid and of corruption
  • Frum says in the long term, disaster victims need work, not welfare

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he was special assistant to President George W. Bush in 2001-2. He is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- "Do you need anything from the pharmacy?" my wife asked. "I have to go early tomorrow to pick up a case of toothpaste."

"Why a case?"

"They are having a drive for Haiti at Bea's school. They are asking all the parents to drop toothpaste, blankets, and other emergency goods to be sent to the earthquake victims."

Maybe your church or your school has asked you to do something similar? If so, pause to think for a moment how crazy it is. You drive to the store. You buy individual items at retail prices. You deliver them to the church or school, where they will be boxed, dispatched to a depot, loaded into a container, trucked to a port, loaded onto a boat, shipped to Haiti, unloaded, sorted, and somehow distributed who knows how many weeks from now. And then -- what if it turns out they don't need the toothpaste?

The day before Christmas, 2004, a terrible tsunami struck the coastline of Indian Ocean countries. The disaster killed perhaps 225,000 people and destroyed millions of homes. International aid surged into the regions: billions of dollars pledged by governments and donated by individuals.

One year after the disaster, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published a remarkably candid assessment of the result of this generosity:

"Initially, aid organizations had to base their relief distributions on informed guesses -- overwhelmed by logistics, they lacked the time to undertake detailed assessments or consultations with affected people. The situation on the hardest-hit west coast [of the Indonesian island of Aceh] remained the big unknown. 'We were taking steps in the dark,' said one aid worker.

"Although international agencies were right in guessing that water, food and shelter would be survivors' initial needs, they were wrong to assume these needs would not be covered, at least partially, by Indonesians themselves. Agencies did little to suppress the myth of disaster victims dependent on external aid to survive. ...

"As dramatic stories of suffering hit the headlines, more agencies poured in, expecting the worst. But aid workers arriving at Meulaboh, dubbed 'ground zero' of the western coast, on 4 January were surprised to find survivors being well cared for by the Indonesian army and authorities. A scramble for beneficiaries began. Some agencies jealously guarded their information to ensure their 'niche.' Within weeks, the 'humanitarian space' had become too small for all these actors.

"Coordination became difficult. Out of 200 agencies present in late January, only 46 submitted reports to U.N. coordinators. Joint needs assessments were rare. Language proved problematic, with U.N. meetings held in English and government meetings in Indonesian. Without knowing who was doing what and where, some communities were overwhelmed with aid while others were neglected.

"At the root of coordination problems was one key factor: too much money. Nearly everyone could hire a helicopter or boat, make their own needs assessments and distributions, and 'fly the flag'. ...

"A month after disaster struck, the aid effort was in full swing. Yet despite a massive response, some of those in greatest need missed out. Most agencies flocked to Aceh's devastated west coast -- but 150,000 people displaced on the east coast received far less aid. Meanwhile, although over 200,000 homeless people found a roof with host families, very few of these families received aid in the first month."

On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the Sri Lankan government did not respond as efficiently as the Indonesian government.

Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami: 31,000 dead. In the months after the disaster, the people of the island nation accepted some $2.2 billion in public and private aid.

The Sri Lankan branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International reviewed Sri Lanka's record on the fifth anniversary of the tsunami.

TI Sri Lanka found that $603 million of that $2.2 billion was spent on projects unrelated to tsunami damage. An additional $472 million had untraceably vanished: stolen perhaps, or diverted, or wasted.

I don't want to send the wrong message: In many ways, reconstruction after the tsunami has been a huge success. Many charities did great good.

Yet it is also true that if improperly managed, the surge of international donations into a disaster zone can do great harm.

The international humanitarian community has learned important lessons from the tsunami -- and you should too.

Lesson 1:

Disaster relief is first and foremost a military operation. Nobody else has the reach and the lift.

In the first half week after the quake, the U.S. military distributed 600,000 packaged meals and installed water purification systems that can pump 100,000 liters per day. Army helicopters deliver food inland, bypassing the miserable Haitian roads; the Navy has already converted the little port of Cap Haitien to receive modern containers.

The prevention of looting and rioting, the digging out of survivors, and the airlifting of emergency supplies -- those are jobs for government agencies. If all you ever do for Haiti is pay your taxes -- then you have already done a great deal.

Lesson 2:

As the immediate shock passes, a disaster-struck region can benefit from many services that governments do not provide so well. The traumatized must be counseled. The bereaved must be comforted. The maimed must be treated and rehabilitated. Roads must be reopened. New homes must be built. Economic activity must be re-ignited.

Here is where charities and non-government organizations [NGOs] can excel -- or fail.

What is needed after a disaster is more help. What often arrives are many helpers.

These excess helpers bid up the price of some local services. In Afghanistan, I met doctors who had studied abroad, where they had learned English as well as medicine. On their return home, they could earn $100 a month treating the sick -- or $500 a month translating for non-governmental organizations. Guess which job they picked?

So when you do give, concentrate your giving on big organizations with an established presence in the disaster zone. Be suspicious of any group that will first need to build an infrastructure in the area.

And if you are at all tempted to travel yourself to help? Unless you possess unique skills that have been specifically requested by a reputable aid organization -- do everybody a favor, and stay home. The room you'll occupy, the water and electricity you'll consume, are needed by the local people.

Lesson 3:

Disaster survivors need work, not welfare. The distribution of free food, water, tents, etc. must end rapidly, within at most a few weeks. Otherwise a disaster population ends up as a permanent mendicant upon the international community.

Instead, what works best are "cash for work" schemes. Does a road need to be cleared of rubble? Pay local people to do the job -- and not just the manual labor either. Hire local engineers, buy supplies locally. Poor as it is, Haiti manufactures its own cement. It is home to merchants who want to sell rebar and bottled water. If goods and services are dumped free upon a poor country, it can crush any hope of locally sustained economic recovery.

There's always the chance that the locals may do the job incompetently and corruptly. That risk is still to be preferred to the certainty of dependency on long-term international aid -- and the ensuing exodus of the educated and talented to opportunity abroad. Perhaps 600,000 Haitians live in the United States, probably about one-third of them illegally. Another 82,000 Haitians live in Canada. A Haitian-born woman now serves as Canada's governor-general, the country's effective head of state. Altogether, an estimated 80 percent of Haiti's university graduates live abroad.

For all its horror, a disaster can be a demand-side stimulus to a local economy. Give survivors the means to supply their own wants, and then get out of the way.

Lesson 4:

American leaders are pledging a bigger and more permanent commitment to Haitian reconstruction. Big mistake. Please reconsider.

Haiti already receives $250 million of U.S. government aid annually, more than any country in the Americas except Mexico and Colombia. Canada and the EU also give generously. Altogether, more than one-third of Haiti's budget depends on foreign donations. And that's only the government-to-government assistance!

The World Bank counts 10,000 NGOs in operation in Haiti. To a great extent, these NGOs have displaced the broken Haitian state. They support libraries and universities, run schools and hospitals -- so much so that the island has been nicknamed, "the republic of NGOs."

Haitian agriculture offers an extreme example. The Haitian farmer's association ANDAH estimates that of the $91 million budgeted for public investment in agriculture in 2006-2007, $85 million was managed by NGOs.

Control of the resources of an NGO has become a crucial asset in Haitian political competition; employment in an NGOs has become the outstanding avenue to upward mobility in Haiti. In fact, the previous prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, had headed the Haitian arm of George Soros' Open Society Institute.

President Rene Preval's two earlier nominees for the job had been rejected by the Parliament. But nobody was going to vote against a nominee who controlled one of the largest pools of cash on the island. Pierre-Louis' nomination was approved by the Chamber of Deputies 61-1 in July 2008, and by the Haitian Senate 12-0. Her detractors simply abstained: 20 in the Chamber, five in the Senate.

Altogether, Haiti has received nearly $6 billion in aid since 1990. The nation has borrowed another $1.5 billion on global markets. That's almost $1,000 per Haitian in international transfers. Yet half the children on the island go unimmunized against disease. Two-thirds of Haitians cannot read or write. Order is kept by Canadian troops, not Haitian forces.

More of what is not working won't work better. The huge aid flow has not lessened poverty, disease or illiteracy. It has instead empowered leaders who possess only one skill: the ability to manage and manipulate foreign donors.

Haiti and its supporters must choose between one of two futures -- and the present grim moment is as good a time as any to start.

Future 1: Accept that Haiti cannot govern itself. Close the government, fire the president and cabinet, and put the NGOs fully in charge. The NGOs get the aid money. They hire, they fire. They give the orders to the police and the foreign troops. They allocate the reconstruction money. They teach and immunize. Local elites will be deprived of the power to extract bribes, steal from the population, and divert humanitarian assistance to themselves. Outsiders pay Haiti's bills -- maybe it's time they made Haiti's decisions.

OR Future 2: Generously fund disaster relief and post-disaster job creation -- but set a date certain for the termination of all further international cash assistance. December 31, 2019, would do as well as any date. Over the next decade, international assistance would taper on a pre-set schedule. Haiti's people need to know: It's up to them to elect better leaders, and up to those leaders to run schools, roads and the local economy.

NGOs can offer advice, but unelected foreigners dispensing free money make a poor substitute for your own government. And to adapt an old formula -- there's no representation without taxation.

It sounds tough, but this is the medicine that worked for South Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s. It's the medicine that has worked for every country that has ever escaped poverty. Haiti is a tougher case than most. But who will deny that the present path is a path of ever worsening and costlier failure?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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