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.