The tsunami

Some reflections

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 26 December 2004 was one of the most lethal, and perhaps the most widespread natural disaster in living memory. What general conclusions can the development community draw?

The first, clearly, is that the lack of warning was an extremely significant element in the death toll. The international community is now going to put this right, but should we have got it right collectively earlier? Take cyclone warnings in the Bay of Bengal. Figures show that, while the incidence of cyclones has probably increased, the death tolls are in steady and steep decline, essentially as a result of simple measures, such as better local warning systems and provision of cyclone shelters. The risk of a tsunami, as a much less “normal” event, was not judged sufficient for a similar investment. Are there other rare, but potentially catastrophic, events that we should be providing for? And what are the risks?

Linked to this, there is a question of whether a better job might have been done in getting warnings to the countries where there was a few hours of potential notice. And what does this imply for efficient public warnings?

A second conclusion is more positive. The international relief effort has been successful in preventing any significant second round of deaths through hunger and disease. This represents a very considerable achievement, particularly in Aceh, where the scale of the disaster, the logistical difficulties and the political situation could easily have combined to produce a heavy toll of further death and disease.

Initial reactions may have appeared improvised, but they seem on balance to have been effective. Particularly noteworthy was the agreement to let the UN, after the first few days, play the strong role it is supposed to play in such situations, as well as the contribution of local, regional and international military assets in the initial stages, particularly in Indonesia. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs appears to have risen successfully to one of its biggest challenges.

A third conclusion is not new: external aid in these situations must be responsive to local needs, and not designed for the evening news headlines. “Send a blanket” is not a useful response unless blankets are needed. For me, this lesson goes back to the post-civil war emergency relief programme in Nigeria in 1970, when the Nigerian Red Cross played a sterling role in specifying needs and doing its best to exert discipline on the donors. I still recall a sad-looking packing case of unwanted tea, sent as a gesture from another African country, sitting forlornly in the rain at Lagos Airport; it was a visible example of useless tokenism.

Cash for local purchase should be the prime response, particularly for an emergency where there are functioning markets, as in Sri Lanka, within a few miles of every beach. This should be coupled with those emergency supplies that are genuinely needed from outside the country.

In this disaster, affected countries seem to have been competent and assertive in saying what they needed, and this has probably restrained the supply of irrelevant material. The announcement after a few days by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) that they needed no more donations for the tsunami response was to my mind a healthy signal from a key member of the NGO community.

All this points to a need for strong co-ordination. Some flag-waving by countries and NGOs is inevitable, but the clear determination of countries like Thailand and India to take the lead in their own response sent a good signal. Stories of chaos, overlap and confusion have been modest, given the scale of operations.

Another conclusion is that there is much yet to do. Emergency relief is one thing. Dealing with the physical and psychological consequences is a much longer and even more complex task. Enabling survivors to regain and hopefully improve their livelihoods will require a lot of understanding of local people’s wishes and needs. It is a classic case for participative approaches, rather than blueprint solutions, and for full recognition of issues around gender, environment and potential for conflict – particularly in areas where conflict is already present.

Finally, there is the public response, which has been unprecedented. It is not hard to see why. A disaster of this scale, killing tens of thousands of local people but also large numbers of foreign tourists, prolonged media attention, the timing just after Christmas, all combined to jolt every one of us. I will not myself forget being rung in a well-stocked London supermarket to be told the shocking news that a colleague from the UK Department for International Development had been killed in Thailand along with his three children, leaving just his injured wife alive of all the family.

We should not assume that such a large response can readily be transformed into a step-increase in voluntary funding for what have been called the “silent tsunamis” of poverty and child mortality. But the public’s outpouring tells us something. People do care about the basic welfare of their fellow human beings.

The discussion of the aftermath quickly led to questions about the underlying reasons why so many very poor communities live in inherently fragile and risky environments. Some understanding does exist of the case for longer-term investment to reduce vulnerability. This should guide us in ensuring that reconstruction efforts include disaster preparedness and mitigation measures. There are already some signs that this climate of opinion may persuade some donor governments that they can sustain a case for giving greater support to the Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, the tsunami has already triggered some useful discussions between the OECD and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on providing clearer accounting to our publics of how aid has been spent, and how much of it is additional to existing aid programmes. And we are discussing how to bring the Development Assistance Committee’s insights to bear on the assessment of the response that is surely needed.


Manning, Richard (2004), “Development challenge”, in OECD Observer No 243, May 2005. 

©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005

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