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close this bookDisaster Management Ethics (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1997, 70 p.)
close this folderTOPIC 4 Disaster fundraising, appeals and the utilization of funding resources
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentFunding sources for disaster relief
View the documentAn ethical litmus test for disaster relief
View the documentResponse by Jerry Aaker
View the documentResponse by Joel R. Charny
View the documentResponse by Arthur E. Dewey

Response by Joel R. Charny


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A fundamental problem in disaster response is not lack of funds, but how funds are spent.

The fundamental irony in responding to disasters is that while the affected community may be devastated, it is the only long-term source of resources for its own recovery. Humanitarian agencies have for too long responded by transferring immense amounts of assistance to the affected population, using resources gained from fund-raising appeals which play on the loss and helplessness of the survivors, the victims. More effective disaster assistance builds from an inventory of the needs and capacities of the affected population and responds to the needs in ways which build capacity.

The underlying philosophy of Oxfam America’s long-standing disaster response policy is very much in keeping with the principles of the “ethical litmus test” contained in the essay. This policy, developed after the Cambodia relief effort in 1979, emphasizes the importance of reconstruction and development work even within a disaster response. In fact, large-scale disasters, to the extent that they shake the traditional structures and norms, actually provide an opportunity for oppressed and marginalized communities to work for fundamental change. For this reason the policy supports indigenous institutions, the enhancement of local capacity, and education and advocacy regarding the basic causes of the particular disaster and the reasons why the poor and vulnerable suffer disproportionately.

Repeated use of these images has dulled the public to real suffering, while encouraging the public to view people as unable to solve their own problems.

A number of additional issues are highlighted in regard to the ethics of fund raising mentioned in the essay:

1. With the general public’s capacity to receive and analyze information completely saturated, there is a tendency in the relief community to exaggerate the level of suffering involved in overseas disasters. Dire predictions are made (Cambodia: 3 million dead by Christmas; Somalia: the very survival of the Somali people is at stake), which turn out not to be true, precisely because the recovery and self-help capacity of the disaster victims has been grossly underestimated. Unfortunately, the net effect of these statements is to dull the impact of accurate assessments of future disasters. Even accurate assessments become easier to ignore or dismiss as another example of “crying wolf” to get attention.

2. A fundamental problem in disaster response is not lack of funds, but how funds are spent. A major ethical issue in disaster response is that millions of dollars are spent on salaries, per diems, transportation, and other support costs for the expatriate disaster relief experts. This money is spent back in the industrialized world or in the country which serves as the logistical base for the relief effort (Thailand for Cambodia, or Kenya for Somalia). Far more disaster response spending should be done by contracting services from the affected communities themselves, placing resources directly into the hands of the community whenever possible, and allowing the community to make decisions as to priorities for spending.

3. Many relief workers lack even the most rudimentary knowledge of the languages, cultures, and politics of the countries they are working in; they are profoundly outsiders, prescribing solutions precisely when the devastated population is most vulnerable. Too many relief workers ignore the ethical problem posed by the power they can wield through relief assistance.

4. The issue of “starving babies” is not that the images are indecent, but rather that the image portrays utter helplessness. No community is utterly helpless, even in times of war and famine. Repeated use of these images has dulled the public to real suffering, while encouraging the public to view people as unable to solve their own problems. The dignity and capacity of the affected people must be conveyed, along with real analysis as to causes of the disaster. Only with understanding created through analysis of root causes will the public begin to understand and support long-term solutions to the problems which create large-scale disasters.