Sunday, January 17, 2010

Some thoughts about the Haiti Earthquake and the 2004 Tsunami

It has been heart-warming to see the outpouring of generosity and support since the disaster hit in Haiti. I even saw a message about earthquake relief yesterday on a highway sign that normally gives live info about traffic congestion…

As the examples of other catastrophes that gathered far less attention (earthquake in Kashmir or Iran a few years ago) show, the extent of the emotional connection that one feels with those who have been struck by a natural disaster is going to determine in a big way the level of people’s generosity. In the US, the proximity to the island and the presence of substantial Haitian communities in many large urban areas (20,000 in Boston for example) can explain the level of mobilization. Also, most Americans – even those who know next to nothing about other countries – are aware that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and thus, seeing the poorest of the poor struck by such a catastrophe is heart-wrenching for everyone.

Man-made disasters often generate far less sympathy for their victims – for instance, a civil war in Haiti would be viewed by most as yet another failure on the part of the different parties in the country to work together and make things right for their people.

That same emotional connection we are seeing now explained the big-time generosity in early 2005 after the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia and caused over 300,000 deaths. The disaster struck a day after Christmas (which made the catastrophe even more “unfair” to most though it was a totally irrational reaction) in places that were known by a lot of Westerners who had vacationed there or at least heard about them. The fact that a number of foreign tourists – mainly from English-speaking countries – were among the victims helped spread the word and the emotion. And finally that part of the world is considered “non-hostile” to the West unlike Iran for instance. Although most of us can make the difference between a country’s politics and its civilian population’s plight, this is about emotional connection that by definition is subjective.

A major difference with the 2004 Tsunami aftermath is the role that social networks are playing this time. It has been amazing to see how the likes of Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook have helped people stay connected with loved ones or share or ask for information about family members they had not heard about. CNN was counting on its viewers in the first 48 hours following the catastrophe for images. All phone lines were down but I heard about folks who were able to communicate by skype – incredible.

The 2004 Tsunami turned out to be a bonanza for NGOs that got involved in the relief efforts. Amounts raised worldwide went through the roof compared to whatever those organizations had achieved in the past, even for relief assistance. Arguably, those entities provided a service in the affected areas and thus, the money raised enabled them to do that work on the ground. However, a percentage of the funds that were collected paid for those NGOs’ administrative infrastructure and sometimes for other projects as well. I am under the impression that most of those organizations, even the bigger ones, did not communicate on the way the money was spent.

Now, having experienced how hard it is even for good organizations to raise money, especially in times of economic crisis (see what happened after the burst of the internet bubble in 01-02 and since the Lehman meltdown in the fall of 08), I don’t have a problem knowing that some of the Haiti Earthquake money will serve to fund those nonprofits’ “backbones” and maybe less publicized but equally important projects as well – however, if that is the case, people should be informed before making their donations and every NGO receiving money for the relief efforts should report on its use.

I wonder about the way relief efforts can be coordinated. Obviously, in an area nearly 100% destroyed, the order of business is just to scramble and do as much as possible. Every bit counts, every dollar counts, every pair of arms counts. But given the state of Haiti’s infrastructure before the disaster and knowing the extent of destruction, it is no surprise however that aid relief has a hard time getting to the people right now. In 2004, a week after the Tsunami, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stopped accepting donations arguing that aid could not arrive where it was supposed to go and thus additional money was not going to help. Let’s hope that those involved in the relief efforts won’t have to get to that extreme. NPR just had a story about possible relief gridlock.

I feel like CNN and other news networks are having a bowl right now – not literally because I know they care about the suffering and the pain of the Haitian people but this Earthquake is such good business for them. I was in Puerto Rico when the disaster hit and I watched CNN (and Fox News) in my hotel room quite a bit. As I already wrote, I am not a fan of media-bashing and I recognize the value of the CNNs of the world, namely informing us and bringing us live news coverage – but you can tell that catastrophes are the bread and butter of those folks. Natural disasters make for such compelling images and so much emotion also that viewers will stay stuck to their screens for days on end. And CNN has the resources to send a bunch of its people down who know virtually nothing about the country (based on the comments I heard) - but hey, there are journalists and even the good Doctor Gupta who are reporting on the ground, so I guess we are all covered...

I don’t want to finish on a cynical note, so here is some information again about how you can get involved in the relief efforts: Network for Good’s web site / blog and Google’s Crisis Response page.

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