Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Making disaster relief efficient PART I: What would you do?

Burmese women wait in line for water (photo courtesy: Wall Street Journal)

The biggest inefficiencies of International Development agencies, who are at the front line of disaster relief operations, are their lack of coordination and POOR human resources management, which DESPERATELY need to be addressed.

I've been following the Burmese Cyclone tragedy, as I'm sure most of you have. It brings to mind Katrina, and the Tsunami - large-scale disasters that have been poorly managed, and several years later are STILL being worked on. Why haven't the lessons of the past been learned?? Why is it that Walmart, a supermarket chain store, had a superior response to the Katrina disaster than any other relief agency that specializes in "relief"??

Well, I have a good answer to the Walmart question. The overall short answer to the larger question of why International Development agencies respond so badly is a lack of coordination, and poor human resources management.

Let me give you a small example:

As soon as the 2004 tsunami happened, my friend who is a water-sanitation specialist wanted to help. She called up various news agencies who pointed her to the American Red Cross (ARC). Their phone line (not surprisingly) was overloaded with other people like her trying to find a way to help. The generic phone message said Please give money or blood (not exactly in those words, but you get the point). My frustrated friend, who had relevant skills, tried calling around in vain. She ended up trading in her christmas presents for money, which she donated to ARC. We still don't know where that money went or how it has been used. For that matter, I won't go into how much money ended up being collected for the tsunami by all the international development agencies, how quickly it disappeared, and how little has actually been done about it. That's a frustrating tale in and of itself. (On that note, here's a great article about what happened to the money donated to Katrina??)

Yesterday I was browsing through some job ads on the ARC website, and they were looking for a water-sanitation specialist for "tsunami relief." Someone explain to me why three and a half years later, they are still looking for my friend who wanted to work with them in the first place for the same project!

Here's something even more ironic. A year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put out a desperate call for water/sanitation engineers to work in the field. My friend who fit the description of what they were looking for, filled out the excruciatingly long application and sent it in. Three hours later, she got a response saying "no." Confused, she called and emailed them. Three days later, sick of her calls, they wrote saying "sorry...we don't offer explanations to anyone we didn't interview" or something to that effect. I'm still confused. She has field experience, top-line degrees, and good knowledge of her subject; not to mention that she is well-traveled and lived independently in rough parts of the world. I'm more curious than she is about why she got turned down.

Now the Burmese tragedy. She calls me up again saying...I just read, they are having problems with water quality. I want to help. My first response is...just go there. You'll find something. But that's dumb. Its worse to send someone out like that. I've already done that. I've shown up and the place was a zoo, and my being there only made the chaos worse. I got frustrated. I might as well have stuck with the job I had. Now I need help! So I just shut up and listen to her complain. I don't tell her to give money, or volunteer locally. Been there, done that too. I know how frustrating it is to be told that.

So what can someone in her shoes do??


Aparna said...

Has she tried relief web? Usually they quickly get posts up there!


pragzz said...

Nope, she hasn't. Nor did I know about it. Thanks for the excellent suggestion!