Disaster lessons

The wave of natural disasters that swept the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions in recent weeks has left a heavy human and economic toll. Thousands have perished, lives and communities have been shattered. Could some of this have been avoided, or the toll reduced? We have been here before, notably following the tsunami that struck southern Asia and the east coast of Africa in 2004. The latest tsunamis, typhoons and earthquakes are tragic reminders of how vulnerable some human settlements are, and underline the importance of integrating disaster risk into development practices.

As relief efforts ramp up, learning lessons from past disaster responses is useful. Many of these lessons have been brought together at www.oecd.org/dac. The page's authors warn that damage caused by natural disasters can outweigh years of development assistance, and that even well-intentioned humanitarian assistance can also undermine previous gains. Some simple steps can avoid the pitfalls.

One is to assess real needs, in particular, focusing on issues perceived as a priority by the "aid beneficiaries" themselves rather than those that development agencies assume are important.

A second principle is to remember the power of information: "Information about plans is the starting point for people to decide for themselves how they wish to get on with their lives."

As aid and relief workers know, prevention counts too. Tsunamis and earthquakes will happen, but risk reduction and preparedness can enable communities and nations to better face future disasters and manage the aftermath. Emergency relief is one thing; enabling survivors to regain and hopefully improve their livelihoods is the aim.

Another basic requirement is to keep learning so as to improve humanitarian and development assistance.

Of course, some lessons will be learned over and over again. As Richard Manning, a former chair of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee, wrote shortly after the 2004 tsunami, "the earthquake that launched the massive tidal wave lasted only a few moments, but...changed us all forever. It has taught us several lessons, about our own mortality, about development, about the environment. It also taught us about aid and solidarity, about working together across continents."

See also "The tsunami: Some reflections" in OECD Observer, No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005 and "Tsunami reflections: Turning pledges into action" in No 249, May 2005.

©OECD Observer No 274, October 2009

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