Put Local Economies at the Center of Disaster Relief

J.J. Gould

In the first days after a natural catastrophe, nothing's more important than speed. But what most enables a fast response -- essentially, rapid access to the global economy -- can also impede recovery, by laying the groundwork for an ongoing exclusion of the local economy. So here's a simple idea that could mean the difference between spending on disaster relief and sustainably investing in it: Start pulling local economies into disaster-relief efforts right away.

After an earthquake devastated Armenia in 1988, or when flooding overwhelmed Bangladesh in 1991, international aid organizations were able to figure out the priority needs well enough, but the logistics it took to quickly meet those needs strained their capabilities. Not so, 20 years on: For all of the challenges getting aid into Port-au-Prince earlier this year, vital supplies were arriving by air within hours of the Haiti quake, and kept arriving steadily over the following days. Even since the Aech tsunami in Indonesia just five-and-a-half years ago, disaster relief has come a long way.

A big part of this story is the role of quick-acting suppliers from all around the world. If there's a brutal hurricane in the Caribbean a month from now, it may end up being a lot faster to have, say, 10,000 tons of canned tuna start shipping immediately from Japan than it is to try leveraging local supply lines for comparable doses of protein. When it comes to emergency relief, faster is better, no matter how weird some of the curvier and more protracted transport routes might look.

And yet the longer international aid organizations rely on global suppliers, the less money gets injected into the affected region, and the less opportunity the local population has to be an ongoing part of the recovery -- in fact, the longer it takes for there to be a recovery at all.

But what if we could speed up not just the arrival of vital supplies to a natural disaster zone, but also the integration of local content and suppliers into the recovery process? Relief providers might dream of something like a worldwide database that links them instantly to different local suppliers, depending on where a disaster happens, what the destruction is like, rural vs. urban demographics, and maybe dozens of other factors.

In the meantime, there's an elementary move any aid organization can make, virtually anywhere, any time: Send in local-content specialists along with the "fire fighters," the first-response team. As soon as they hit the ground, these specialists could start figuring out local supply lines and expediting the affected population's reliance on local, rather than remote, suppliers. The sooner they do, the more disaster relief will feed directly into sustainable recovery. Not only that: Once you know how to buy locally, you know how to get stuff to the people who need it even faster.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Idea of the Day Show Us What We Spend on Power

Show Us What We Spend on Power

Electricity bills are confusing, and don't arrive until long after the damage is done. The fix to a system that's high in both costs and headaches lies in connecting consumers to their consumption--show people what they're using in real time, and make it easy to compare costs to kilowatts. Geoffrey Gagnon

Features from the Magazine: Stories from our
The End of Men

The End of Men

The sexes: Women are dominating society as never before. By Hanna Rosin Plus: Are Fathers Necessary? By Pamela Paul

Xanadu

Xanadu

Energy: A map of one couple's attempt to build the world's greenest home By Joshua Green

Closing the Digital Frontier

Closing the Digital Frontier

Technology: How media companies are taming the Internet's chaos By Michael Hirschorn

The Littlest Schoolhouse

The Littlest Schoolhouse

Education: Helping wayward students—by personalizing curricula By Ta-Nehisi Coates

No Refills

No Refills

Business: Why are fewer drugs being approved, even as R&D surges? By Megan McArdle

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty

Wealth of nations: An eminent economist discovers the virtues of colonialism. By Sebastian Mallaby

The Case for Calling Them Nitwits

The Case for Calling Them Nitwits

Security: Most terrorists are bungling fools. Spread the word. By Daniel Byman and Christine Fair