Fixing the Inefficiency of Compassion

by CARE International | @SandraBulling1 | CARE International Secretariat
Wednesday, 15 January 2014 08:06 GMT


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By Lex Kassenberg, Country Director CARE Philippines

The tragedy of typhoon Haiyan inspired a worldwide burst of generosity. Images of human suffering bring out an enormous will to help across borders and continents. It is a beautiful feature of our shared humanity.

Spontaneous solidarity is not, however, a sufficient basis for meeting the challenges of an increasing number of natural disasters, caused by climate change, environmental degradation and increasingly dense populations in hazardous areas. We need to get better at preventing and mitigating disasters, rather than reacting to the death, damage and suffering they bring. That requires a transformation of aid towards funding-mechanisms that ensure an effective management of risk.

The United Nations estimates that natural disasters have affected 4.4 billion people, claimed 1.3 million lives and caused two trillion dollars in economic losses over the last twenty years. Low income countries bear the brunt of the damage. Natural disasters threaten to undo much of the progress made over the last decade in global poverty reduction. Homes are destroyed. Livelihoods are lost. Injuries and mental traumas incapacitate. Women and children are particularly vulnerable and suffer disproportionately from desperate coping mechanisms such as child labor, early marriage or prostitution.

Few countries have been more exposed to growing forces of nature than the Philippines. Over the last years, typhoons have become stronger and more frequent: Ketsana and Parma claimed more than 1200 lives in 2010, Washi killed at least as many in 2011 and Bopha well over 2000 in 2012. And now, Haiyan. People barely have time to recover after one disaster before the next one strikes. This drains the resources of local communities and of the nation.

Hundreds of millions of people – from the coastlines of Southeast Asia, along the edges of the Sahara to the cities of Latin America – are trapped in the same vicious circle of poverty: Each time they lose their property to a disaster or sell it cheaply in order to survive, they become more dependent on emergency relief. The current aid system is ill-equipped to break this cycle. We need to bridge the gap between long term development programs and humanitarian relief. The bridge is called disaster risk reduction.

Disaster risk reduction is about identifying natural hazards and reducing the vulnerability of people exposed to them. Helping poor communities prepare and strengthen their resilience saves more lives and costs less than emergency relief. Though disasters are difficult to compare, it is worth noting that while Haiyan claimed up to 8000 lives, cyclone Nargis killed more than 138.000 in Myanmar in 2008. Thousands of lives may have been saved in the Philippines by systems for early warning and evacuation – though they did not work in all areas.

Many communities had no real warning of Haiyan and families lived in houses that would not have withstood a much weaker storm. More lives would have been saved by better houses, safer evacuation centers and a continued public information campaign for high-risk communities to understand the hazards and know what to do before, during and after a storm. In particular, there is a lack of knowledge about storm surges.

In spite of the compelling case for massive investments in disaster risk reduction, funding remains a small fraction of what is spent on emergency relief.  This is the shortcoming of our ability to emphasize with human suffering: It is a poor guide for allocating resources to prevent it. Governments hold the key to fix this by ensuring an effective and comprehensive management of risk. International aid organizations have the tools to assist and we are ready to do much more, given the resources.

Having seen first-hand the shocking destruction of Haiyan, I appeal to donors to allow part of their funding for recovery efforts to be invested in building safer societies, better prepared to meet the next disaster.