Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, January 02, 2005
 
Griefbusters

(So this is what I actually blogged about yesterday.)

The New Republic has republished online a 1985 editorial it ran after a Mexican earthquake which cost 30,000 lives and $4 Billion. It noted two major and manmade problems with disaster relief: affected countries being too proud to ask for help, and massive inefficiencies of coordination and logistics. The former problem is only tractable to the extent that national governments will not be entirely perverse about their dealings with the world when it comes to helping their own people (e.g. Myanmar's eerie silence). However, for countries less entirely ornery, for whom the issue is more one of national pride, TNR had a fairly practical solution: "If we made a prior agreement with other nations, promising to help each other in case of disaster, the burden would be to refuse aid rather than to ask for it."

The real issue TNR addressed in 1985 was one of coordination, and the realization that dawns upon the reader--that we have almost the exact same problems now, 20 years, the PC revolution, the Internet & World Wide Web, the Human Genome Project, and Google later--is both humbling and infuriating. Without diminishing this disaster at all, I have to agree with Stefan at MemeFirst: our response is a little irrational. It makes the most sense if it's really signally a true sea-change. As Matthew Yglesias and Kriston Capps groused early in the Tsuani blog cycle, it's really amazing how unprepared we are as a world for disasters when we know that, regardless of the specifics, they are going to happen. Yglesias:
"But it always seems very ad hoc. People scramble around to see which charities are active in the relevant area, and potential aiding governments don't quite know what resources they have at their disposal, etc., etc. In light of the fact that there evidently is a widespread and pretty deep commitment to global disaster relief, this makes me wonder if there isn't a politically feasible opportunity to make all this work better by establishing a reasonably well-funded and well-resourced permanent international agency to step in and do this work rather than having everyone scramble around ad hoc after something happens. This -- unlike some other stuff people would like to see it do -- seems like the kind of task that the UN is pretty well-suited to do, since various governments have a pretty good record of cooperating with each other on these kinds of issues so you wouldn't see the usual paralysis. Obviously, the UN already has a substantial aid component, but unless I'm mistaken there's isn't the sort of body I have in mind -- a kind of global FEMA ("GEMA," I suppose you would call it)."

TNR, of course, had this same idea twenty years ago, when Matt and I and probably Kriston were small children. They named their proposal Griefbusters*, and they were totally contemptuous of the UN's Disaster Relief Organization, which seems to have since been reorganized into the Office of Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs. I am generally suspicious of all editorial writing on the UN because it seems like everyone has an axe to grind and it's so difficult figure out what the facts actually are, but TNR did highlight two key problems with what existed then that I can believe:

1) the UNDRO had no ordering authority. TNR compared this to a traffic cop who can only help direct people who already know where they're supposed to be going.
2) UNDRO had no assets and very little standing staff. Each time a disaster struck it was immediately dependant on coordinating new donations and volunteers from volunteering countires.

OCHA seems to have made a difference, mainly by having a beautifully belligerent Undersecretary in Jan Egeland, and by creating Reliefweb, which connects humanitarian organizations with each other and donors. But as far as I can tell the basic problems still remain. The UN groups who actually have the resources to swing into action are the UNHCR, the UNDP, and UNICEF--and they just aren't optimized for this kind of thing.

TNR wanted to take a majority of the cash that normally goes into ad hoc responses, and plough it into making a standing army of volunteers, experts, equipment and supplies--ready and waiting to go at a moment's notice, with default authority pre-ordained by treaty. In the Cold War of 1985, the reliably anti-Communist TNR wanted no part of a global Griefbusters Team, and wrote rather charmingingly:
"If the Soviet Union decides to create an Eastern bloc rescue team, no harm will be done. It would be better for the superpowers to compete for the affections of the world with aid to disaster stricken nations than by supplying arms." Well, in our nominally unipolar world, a global team might actually be more realistic.

It seems to me that if this idea was plausible in 1985, it's absolutely possible in 2005: we have the use of computers and the web to coordinate all this information, and a lot more wealth to pay for the same basic supplies. The prices of plastic sheeting and biscuits have probably not risen quite as fast as inflation. The first US military aid reaching Sumatra today exemplifies why a powerful, governmentally backed body would be useful: the Red Cross doesn't have battleships and fleets of helicopters to reach completely devastated cities.

Can we make it happen? Private donations this time are expected to add upto hundreds of millions of dollars. I have always been bothered by the insistence of some that money given right after a specific disaster must be used for that specific disaster even once it's been taken care of. It's very possible that this intense outpouring of aid will in fact be necessary, that's just how bad this Tsunami was. But should it be possible to get the survivors back up on their feet and still have some cash left over, there's no moral reason why that cash can't be saved for a future disaster, which inevitably will strike. Those future victims will be just as deserving then as these Tsunami victims are now. We could use the momentum of this global reaction to create a general reserve of readiness and funding. As private citizens of the deeply connected 21st century world, we should feel empowered at our ability to raise so much cash in a matter of days--and maybe think about directing that power more efficiently for the future. It would benefit all of us. It may even be possible to get this standing army of disaster relief going without governmental or even corporate initiatives, with sufficient web-based organization.

Of course, what I have to wonder is--how is this different from the Red Cross & Red Crescent societies? Shouldn't we just make them stronger and better? My surface reaction: The Red Cross performs such important tasks of neutrality in the theater of war that mixing it up with this kind of aggressively transnational rapid-response team might not be a good idea.

Definitely something the international community--and the web community--needs to start discussing seriously.


*Between thinking that I had posted about this and rewriting this post, I have mentioned Griefbusters to friends, including a disaster preparation expert. Their instantaneous reaction: That's a terrible name. You don't bust grief, you heal it. It's far too cute for a serious project. As I've observed before, journalists are addicted to grimly cute puns, so I'm not sure I can divorce myself from those instincts. But I kinda think a group with such a relentlessly unpleasant mission might benefit from a little humor and the use of Bill Murray as a sort of mascot.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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