How many more disasters is it going to take for us to get our act together?
On first glance, it seems that the sheer scale of such events makes it impossible to plan. Lately though we have had plenty of opportunity for practice in the coordination of mass efforts to address tragedy (natural, and human-made). The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami reportedly killed 230 000 people, 2005 Hurricane Katrina was all the more tragic because it was marked by a pathetic response from the US Government, the 2010 Haitian earthquake left an innumerable number dead (estimates 30 000-250 000 dead) and the effects three years later are still widespread with homelessness, cholera and food insecurity. The terrifying list goes on and on with cyclones in Burma, tsunamis in Japan, floods in Pakistan - it seems there are no places that have been spared their share of suffering.
In all of these scenarios, hundreds of well meaning foreign "aid groups," organizations and agencies poured onto the scene, doing their best to alleviate suffering. I have no doubt that they helped in each and every case. But could they have done better? Can we do more when another inevitably tragedy strikes? The problem is that rarely do any of these groups talk to each other. Worse than this, they rarely share resources or expertise- essentially someone is reinventing the wheel each time. Furthermore, the public from whom they seek donations doesn't have a clear idea of who exactly does what (and I suspect neither do the groups themselves). Our news stations and social media channels boom with requests for donations, but it is a struggle to discern what Save The Children, World Vision and UNICEF do differently, and why they can't work together under one umbrella rather than competing for donations in times of crisis. Clearly competition in moments of turmoil is not best for the people suffering on the ground.
Ordinary people around the world have been incredibly generous during difficulties in foreign lands. Perhaps because the reality is finally sinking in that we as residents of this planet are all interconnected and a similar fate could befall any of us at any moment. President Obama outlined exactly what the U.S. Government is going to provide in addition to a disaster response team; "$20 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to benefit typhoon-affected populations, including the provision of emergency shelter, food assistance, relief commodities, and water, sanitation, and hygiene support" (via http://www.whitehouse.gov/typhoon). Interestingly the White house page also mentions another page where citizens can contribute donations http://www.interaction.org/ which claims to be "a united voice for global change" with 180 like-minded organizations. One doesn’t need to look very far down the "our members" page to realize that few of them have experience in disaster situations nor qualified personnel to be of any use working in the Philippines at this crucial point. The situation is akin to having an Ophthalmologist on hand when you have a shattered pelvis, all the impressive advanced-training in the world cannot make up for lack of experience in a relevant field. If groups are going to proudly display badges of “numbers helped” and “blankets handed out” then they also need to critically evaluate how many people they are failing due to lack of coordination with other groups.
There needs to be a chain of command, not a free for all by any and all organizations. The noble work of non-government actors certainly has a place - but it should be under the supervision of one coordinating party. When the government itself is incapable of taking the lead due to destruction in infrastructure or death of members, shouldn't the U.N. take charge? Isn't that one of the purposes for which it was created? If not, and I am sadly misinformed (or if UN staff are too busy holding meetings), then we need to create an organization with this one explicit mission - a FEMA v2.0 for world disasters (clearly not the FEMA during Katrina). If nothing changes, we will continue to witness the collective suffering of victims.