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The Last Mile

Tsunami Relief

Individual efforts, says Tuftsí Peter Walker, can play an important part in strengthening international humanitarian relief efforts.


Scientists, politicians and humanitarian aid groups canít prevent natural events like the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that killed 150,000 in South Asia and displaced millions more last month. But they can prevent them from turning into disasters and taking so many lives. As people around the world donate funds to help the survivors in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and other nations in the region, Tuftsí Peter Walker hopes theyíll also lend their voices to the increasing calls for a revamped approach to responding to humanitarian disasters.

"Imagine a big pileup on I-93 caused by bad weather," says Walker, whose experience with development and disaster work has spanned more than 20 years. "There have been no snow forecast warnings because nobody had thought it important enough to do it. There werenít any fire rescue trucks or ambulances available in the area because we havenít launched the appeal to raise the money to buy them yet. After the accident, the local Lions Club starts fundraising in order to buy the blood plasma you desperately need. Would this be a sensible approach?"

Most would agree itís not, but thatís exactly how the international community deals with disaster relief.

"Itís all done retrospectively," Walker says, describing what he considers to be the biggest problem facing his colleagues in nonprofit organizations around the world.

"If you look at the reserves of most humanitarian agencies, particularly NGOs, most have enough money in the bank to keep them going for a few weeks if income dried up," explains Walker, who headed the Bangkok regional office for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for two years before coming to Tufts. "You have virtually no spare capacity. Theyíre totally lean because the whole thing is funded in this sort of voluntary fashion after the event with very, very little money up front."

With limited funds on hand, humanitarian agencies are extremely dependent on the generosity of the global community following a disaster. Countries like the United States pledge large amounts of money in aid, but that doesnít necessarily mean relief groups have the funds they require.


Tsunami Disaster

"Most of the funds allocated will already be within USAID pots of disaster money and that means it isnít available for other areas such as Sudan, Ethiopia or Bangladesh," Walker says. "In the long term, the funds that are already allocated for work in that country get re-allocated, so you rob Peter to pay Paul."

He adds that there are often major discrepancies between what is pledged by donor countries and what is actually delivered. Of the $700 million pledged following last yearís earthquake in Bam, Iran, Walker estimates that just $17 million has actually been delivered. Many of the funds donated after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America were in the form of loans, thus increasing the affected countriesí debt burdens and making long term recovery even more difficult.

Individual donors, therefore, provide a critical source of funds for non profits responding to humanitarian disasters. [For information on how to donate to support the tsunami relief efforts, click here]

"Initially a huge amount of money is needed," explains Walker, who heads the Feinstein International Famine Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "You then have a period when the moneyís coming in a lot faster than you spend it, and thatís now. So the accounts start growing quickly. But the donations drop off very quickly and yet the real spending is needed over the long-term to help rehabilitate those communities."

But it doesnít have to be that way, Walker says.

If the nations of the world established a regularly funded system for disaster relief, Walker says, the process of responding to areas stricken by catastrophes like the tsunamis could improve dramatically.

"That would make a huge difference. It would enable people to invest in more disaster preparedness. It would enable you to have standby capacity," Walker says.

While an event like a tsunami is chaotic and unpredictable, Walker believes there is no reason why the reaction to one should be similarly haphazard. "The mechanism is there," he says, "but it requires collective political will."

Walker hopes many of the people who are looking for a way to help the survivors in South Asia will join the call for change. "You can make your donation and then get involved in advocacy work," he recommends.

"We need to change the prevailing attitude to one which says the world wants to put in place systems which both protect the most vulnerable from disasters and enable us to respond quickly at the local and national level," he suggests.

Thatís the kind of involvement Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow hopes to see among the Universityís students and faculty.

"We have responsibilities to people we will never meet and never see," says Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow. "Life has been very good to most of us. We should reach out to try to help others on a consistent basis, both during a time of immense tragedy, but also, during quieter times when people are still suffering from disease and malnutrition in much of the rest of the world."

With regard to the regions affected by the tsunamis, aid organizations are not only working to fill immediate needs but to prevent this situation from recurring in the future.

"[Agencies] will be asking how come these people are affected in this way and what we can do to ensure it doesnít happen again in the future or if it does itís less severe," Walker explains. "You can make a difference."

Universities like Tufts are already seeking the answers to these questions.

"I am always amazed by the travel undertaken by members of the Famine Center," Bacow says. "They spend a huge amount of their time visiting some of the poorest and most neglected areas on our planet. They work with local aid organizations as well as international relief organizations. Often they undertake this work at considerable risk to themselves. I am immensely proud of their work on behalf of Tufts."

Part of Walkerís role at the Famine Center is not only to help humanitarian organizations more effectively aid countries beset by disaster, but to educate students about relief efforts and humanitarian issues.

"I think exposing students to how international organizations work is tremendously important," he says. Disasters often raise a multitude of political issues, but Walker says aid workers must look past the politics.

"The key principle behind all humanitarian assistance is seeking to alleviate immediate suffering and seeking to do so impartially," Walker explains. "It doesnít matter if the citizens are rich or poor, young or old. Instead, the focus is on where there is the most suffering and how to acquire absolute core needs."

Even after the immediate needs of survivors are met, assistance will be needed in the region for years to come. Long-term help in the region means looking beyond mere survival to figuring out how to rebuild the livelihoods of the affected peoples.


Tsunami Disaster
Tsunami Disaster

"I am always amazed by the travel undertaken by members of the Famine Center," Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow says. "They spend a huge amount of their time visiting some of the poorest and most neglected areas on our planet. They work with local aid organizations as well as international relief organizations. Often they undertake this work at considerable risk to themselves. I am immensely proud of their work on behalf of Tufts."

"In rebuilding, one of the things people should be doing in these areas is really looking at who suffered and why," Walker says. "Not everybody is equally affected."

Some populations, he explains, are more vulnerable to such events than others.

"Youíve got many more people in the world who are on the brink of disasters, and particularly in coastal areas because thatís where sea levels rise, climate change hits and itís where most urbanization is, and most of the worldís population is in urban areas," Walker says.

Understanding these conditions and limitations ahead of time can help disaster response efforts to be more prepared in terms of resources, funding and strategies.

Indeed, many of the areas that bore the brunt of the Indian Ocean tsunamis were poor remote coastal villages that heavily relied on a single industry such as fishing for subsistence.

"Inevitably, itís the poorest communities that are hardest hit and the ones that are going to have the hardest business in recovering, so we need to determine how to help these communities recover in a way that makes them more disaster proof." Walker says.

For example, investments could be made in retrofitting existing buildings to be more resilient in the face of earthquakes and other natural disasters. Broadening a regionís economic opportunities, he adds, could go a long way in helping that area regroup in the wake of a substantial disaster.

"A community thatís totally reliant on fishing and loses all its fishing boats is stuck," he says. "If their economy is more diverse, theyíve got a chance to rebuild better."

Funds could also be deployed to implement better warning systems to alert communities to impending disasters. Though the Indian Ocean didnít have a tsunami warning system in place, one could be set up relatively easily.

Tsunami Disaster

"This isnít difficult, but it does require effort," Walker says. "It requires a number of governments to have sufficient will to say this is important and weíll do it."

Tsunami Disaster

It also requires a community-oriented approach to preparedness because technology alone isnít enough. While scientists around the world may be able to predict an impending earthquake or cyclone, getting the word out to people living in remote, rural areas is easier said than done.

Walker dubs the final and most important steps - which are frequently the hardest to implement - "the last mile."

"You can easily get a message [about a cyclone or tsunami] to a national capital, but how do you actually get it to the fisherman and the villages on the seacoast that may not have radio or probably arenít listening to them and donít trust the government anyways?" he asks.

Thatís exactly the question people in Bangladesh asked following a cyclone that killed 300,000 in 1970. Their answer - which involved creating a network of volunteers that takes to the streets with megaphones and radios to warn their neighbors of impending storms - is credited with significantly reducing the death tolls from subsequent storms.


Tsunami Disaster

The efforts in Bangladesh, Walker says, prove weíre all capable of helping our fellow citizens regardless of whether weíre on the ground in Sri Lanka, studying in Boston, or living in Europe.

"What you do in your university or company or local government is going to have an effect on people living on the coast of Indonesia," he says. "We are all linked by moral connections, political connections and economic connections. You can make a choice of what you do with those connections. You can make them fairer and more equitable or you can stick to business as usual."


Cover Photo:
NAGAPATTINAM, INDIA: Rajanga, a fisherman from this seaside village prays on the beach at sunrise as debris burns in the background on January 6, 2005 in Nagapattinam, India. (Photo by Ami Vitale/Getty Images)

Header photo by Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images.

This story originally ran on Jan. 17, 2005