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Friday, Aug. 20, 2010


Dealing with disaster

Every day another deluge. Pakistan is battling what the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs calls "the worst monsoon-related floods in living memory." Rains have triggered landslides in China that have claimed more than 1,000 lives. In Russia, rain would be welcome: Wild fires have raged for weeks, burning 2 million, destroying 4,000 homes and creating a smoggy hell for Muscovites. In each case, the government response has been criticized for being slow, late or ineffectual. While some of them may seem obvious or banal, there are lessons to be learned in how to respond to such disasters.

First, and most important, when dealing with disasters of this scale, top government officials have to engage. In fact, there's little the top leadership can do, but it can impart urgency and direction. Direct involvement can mobilize resources, spur the bureaucracy and convince the public that their leaders care about their condition. Staying on vacation — as U.S. President George W. Bush first did when Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast — or continuing with one's schedule — as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari did in his visit to Europe while his country was being devastated — does not reassure. Instead, it sends the message that top officials do not care.

Engaging does not mean either appearing on the scene or micromanaging. The presence of the top government official in the midst of a natural disaster is invariably a distraction. Resources are diverted, time is wasted with protocol and the inevitable image management.

With his penchant for activism, it was only a matter of time before Russian President Vladimir Putin seized some kind of photo op: One does not have to be a cynic to call his piloting of a plane dropping water on the forest fires a publicity stunt. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is often on the scene when disaster strikes in China. A backlash against "Grandpa Wen," the public face of the Beijing bureaucracy, was only a matter of time. It appears to be starting.

Second, governments should open their doors to foreign assistance as soon as possible. Quite often, the reflex is to draw the curtain on media coverage when facing a national tragedy of such scale. This is designed to insulate the leadership from criticism or to hide its shortcomings. Similarly, there is a tendency to decline foreign aid for fear of looking incapable of doing its primary job of protecting citizens.

While foreign assistance can present logistical problems, pride should not be an obstacle to aid. Some countries have developed specialized capabilities; others have better equipment, the ability to get it to affected areas and the resources to help the afflicted. Myanmar's refusal to accept assistance from foreign donors in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis needlessly prolonged the pain of the victims.

A third lesson is that governments that can help should be unstinting in their efforts to do so. Humanitarian concerns should take precedence over political concerns — although prompt and effective aid can pay political dividends. That is the lesson the United States learned in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, when its aid to Indonesia rejuvenated its image in that country. Washington's assistance to Pakistan as it battles these floods is being similarly inflated. Japan's rescue efforts in China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake made a profound impression on the Chinese people and helped burnish this country's image.

A fourth lesson, related to the last two, is that opportunistic groups will fill vacuums when governments do not respond. Thus, in Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, yakuza organizations were quickest to offer assistance and burnish their image as socially oriented organizations rather than criminal gangs. In Pakistan, as after the 2005 earthquake that devastated the country, Islamist groups have filled the aid gap while Islamabad has been slow to respond. In many cases, they are the most visible providers of assistance and their public image benefits accordingly.

A final lesson is long-term. Experts believe that the weather conditions that triggered these disasters are the first signs of climate change. Their impact has been magnified by development policies that paid little or no attention to their effects on the environment. In short, these disasters are yet more evidence in the case for sustainable development policies.

Real leadership requires top officials to pay more attention to the long-term costs of economic policies and adjust them accordingly. National officials have to improve the quality of local and regional governments, reducing corruption and ensuring that the needs of all citizens are met.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that democracy is one way to help ensure that the voices of the poorest are heard and by bringing them into the political process, the impact of disasters can be mitigated. It is hard to dismiss such sentiments as "idealistic" — as is so often the case — when millions of acres burn and entire communities are destroyed.

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