Science, People & Politics. First volume (1-3), Volume iii, issue 3, May-June 2008.

New Look at Natural Disasters
and International Responses

Natural disasters or acts of God, so called, can be made worse by human negligence, error and war, by political defensiveness, prejudice and pride nationally, individually or collectively and transnationally as a group, religious, say. So how can the instinct to help be protected from the irrational consequences of our own prejudices and defences? How do we help the other rather than impose what we think is right on the other and how do we stop the instinct to help being hijacked by third parties with other agendas than immediate relief from hardship and pain? Agendas looking for causes other than that of the natural disaster itself, be it earthquake, cyclone or flood, drought or massive mudslide. Take, for example, a news report about the May earthquake in Sichuan, China in the Sunday Telegraph on 25th May 2008 which notes that parents of children in a school that collapsed were angry in part with officials who nearly two decades earlier they thought had taken kick backs to turn a blind eye to poor construction methods.

The aid worker from beyond China who helps in that situation could find themselves at a future date mired in civil litigation, or dodging local presss in search of a story or viewed as a potential witness in a criminal case or engulfed by old party politics wrenched ruthlessly into the present.

Fortunately these perils often do not quench the desire to help, hence the generous response that charities and non governmental organisations (NG0s) elicit when they fund raise. And these bodies do not only collect money, they also work with governments and intergovernmental organisations to iron out more efficient lines of responsibility, administrative and distributive infrastructures. It can take NGOs, charities and IGOs years to iron out what needs resolving so that they understand one another. I know, because as a journalist I have watched as NGOs finally take their places as formal observers and contributors to IGOs of the United Nations. Medecin San Frontiere and the World Health Organisation spring to mind.

But is there another way of doing business? You will note how slyly I have posed this question half way through this editorial. If you've made it this far you have staying power and might view the following suggestions as worth, say, a 5% contribution from your cerebral cortex for an intermittent period over weeks or, possibly, even months.

Here are a few of the public administrative and business law tools that Britain has in other contexts played with over the years and which might help. Consider them as colours in a kaleidoscope, shake them up and see how they might settle into new ways of doing business for international disaster relief. They are: independence for the bank of England; no means testing; ring-fenced funds; applications to join; tax raising abilities of local and national governments.

First then the Bank of England: When Gordon Brown, now Britain's Prime Minister, was still Chancellor of the Exchequer and when Labour first came to power he gave the Bank of England its independence to set interest rates, an independence free from government plans, fiscal or macroeconomic policy. The bank holds the fate of the banking system and business prospects in its hands, free by law, from the power plays of party politics or individual efforts to assemble their own power base. In one fell swoop a lever of power was removed by the representatives of the people from their own hands. Giving up power is sometimes a sign of maturity, and it seems to be the general consensus that that was a power to cede from government in the interests of economic maturity.

Segue to natural disaster relief internationally. Who currently is ultimately responsible for its finance?

Next take means testing. In the UK this means assessing whether an individual is poor enough to warrant help from a public purse. But people can be driven to poverty or held in poverty or bled of resources to satisfy the unscrupulous. So no means testing is better and actually minimises false claims or excessive claims or hidden agendas. At an international disaster relief level I have in mind that this could mean that the US would seek via its local governments disaster relief with equal merit to its claim as could local government in Burundi.

What of ring-fenced funds? These would be provided by national governments and could amount to 0-0.5% of GDP for those governments which saw such a centralised fund as a worthwhile insurance policy. Once paid in it could never be clawed back, and an international body of deeply cautious bankers could oversee the fund and be independent of governments but could be sacked by government if the decision were unanimous.
Helen Gavaghan


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