What to do when things go wrong?

There are numerous misconceptions about the way society at large, and relief agencies in specific, ought to respond to large-scale disasters. The mistakes are outlined in a lecture by Michael VanRooyen, the director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

From an article in the Harvard Public Health “NOW” online:

“Providers of humanitarian relief often make incorrect assumptions about the vulnerabilities of disaster victims and how they may behave in an emergency, VanRooyen said during a December 17 lecture in Snyder Auditorium as part of the 2007-2008 Public Health Preparedness Speaker Series sponsored by the Center for Public Health Preparedness.

‘We propagate [many incorrect] public perceptions by sending inappropriate services, clothing, and food,’ he said. Responders need to take a clearer and more self-critical look at the aid provided and be willing to challenge the humanitarian aid ‘industry’ and to find better ways to serve people, he added.”

Citing specifics, the article leads up to the example of the international Tsunami relief effort in late 2004 and early 2005 by pointing out:

While the public perception is that disasters bring out the worst in people, the opposite is usually true, he said. “Looting is the exception, not the rule,” said VanRooyen. “People usually reach out to help their neighbors”

And while many believe that local people are helpless, the truth is that local people usually are the real heroes, doing most of the rescue work long before foreign aid workers arrive on the scene, he said.

VanRooyen was especially critical of efforts to send clothing, food shipments, and medical equipment to disaster-hit areas. Most clothing, for example, is often inappropriate, unneeded, and may end up being sold in the marketplace, reducing demand for locally produced clothing, forcing factories to close, and putting people out of work. “Giving things that are not asked for is a big problem,” he said.

A sidebar to the article lists twelve myths and/or common misconceptions about disaster relief.

The bottom line seems to that the best strategy is to provide the financial resources to allow people on the scene to respond as appropriately to the specifics of the situation as possible.

Read the full article here, plus the sidebar list here.

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