Disaster Response as a Growth Industry

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 09, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
5 June 1995

penThere is a transition afoot that we are missing. It is subtle. It is creeping. It is happening. Money that had been going to economic development activities in recent decades is increasingly going to relief operations. In fact, a recent article in the British magazine, The Economist, noted that “disasters are a growth industry. More and more aid is being diverted from development to emergency relief.”

In this day and age, when even the rich industrialized countries are
claiming to be poor, there seems to be a retreat from investing in economic development activities. In part, this may be a result of the collapse of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Before the end of the Cold War, each ideological position was backed up by foreign assistance in order to foster capitalism or communism of different stripes. For example, Cuba received considerable direct and indirect support from the Soviet Union, its strongest ally in the midst of the American sphere of influence. In the hope of containing or “rolling back” communism, the US gave assistance to those leaders who supported our policies abroad, if not our type of political system.

In part it may also be a result of donor fatigue — that is, countries and international organizations that were providing economic development assistance to developing countries, having seen little progress toward any semblance of economic self-sufficiency, have become more reluctant to “invest” their resources. Wars and corruption, among other chronic problems, have also served to turn constituents in donor countries away from putting additional funds into situations that may appear hopeless.

Paralleling this shift away from development assistance is the shift
toward disaster assistance. There seems to be an increasing number of disasters around the globe that demand the attention of donor nations. These disasters, unlike demands for economic development assistance, play on the humanitarian heartstrings of potential donors. Often the disasters affect the poorest in a society, those least likely to be able to take care of themselves. They need help if they are to survive.

Many of these disasters are of human origin, or at the least have a
human contributing factor. Often, poor land-use practices have led to a
decline in soil fertility and an associated decline in agricultural production. Under normal conditions, people are able to live on the margin, producing barely enough food to feed their families. However, with the onset of a drought, these people cannot feed themselves, although they continue to try. The end result is an accelerated degradation of the land, a failure to sustain themselves, the abandonment of the land and homestead, and a search for help.

Wars and other armed conflicts often have the same effect when, for
example, large tracts of farmlands are put off limits because of the indiscriminate planting of land mines. In case of either drought or war, the end result is often similar.

People often flock to feeding centers that have been set up by humanitarian organizations, usually non-governmental ones such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Oxfam, or Feed the Children. In essence, they become wards of the international donor community, awaiting handouts and largesse from relatively rich countries — if and when they decide to dole it out.

With monies being in scarce supply during the post-Cold War period, and with the increase in the number of conflicts around the globe, the
pool of funds available for the attainment of long-term economic development objectives is being increasingly shunted to ad hoc, stop-gap humanitarian efforts to get the poorest of the poor through the life-threatening crisis at hand, usually a famine sparked by conflict or drought or exposure to the elements of refugees from conflict.

It is difficult to say what the situation will be like in, say, twenty or forty years, but the signs that are appearing at the end of the 20th century are sending me an ominous message. The international community will eventually be, for the most part, focused on responding to the disasters of the day, regardless of cause.

Making a bad situation even worse is the tendency of impoverished governments to abandon their welfare responsibilities to their own citizens. This puts an additional burden on humanitarian relief organizations to take care of those unfortunates — such as the elderly, children, infirm, and handicapped — for indefinite periods into the future.

A Chinese proverb (paraphrased) suggests that “if you give a person
a fish she will eat today. If you teach her how to fish, she will feed
herself forever.” It seems that a combination of post-Cold War factors
— an increase in conflicts, increasing population pressures, deteriorating environments and (possibly) global warming and climate change — have pushed us back to the equivalent of “giving a person a fish” and away from the more long-term policy of teaching people how to fish. The latter is likely to be a less costly and more humanitarian strategic policy in the long run.

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