The Sorry State of International Disaster Relief

The Turkish earthquake of August 17 and its disastrously bungled relief effort–the official death toll now stands at 17,997 –is a depressingly familiar story. Why is the world unable to create an international force to provide manpower and equipment to assist in the aftermath of huge natural and manmade disasters (which seem to occur pretty reliably at least five or six times a year)? This extremely sensible idea was floated by the New Republic, which attached to the hypothetical force the memorable name “Griefbusters,” in a series of editorials from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. But for some mysterious reason, nobody seemed terribly interested.

According to an editorial in today’s Christian Science Monitor, the United Nations is doing a better job of coordinating the grab-bag of relief efforts, public and private, from all over the world, than it used to, thanks to its new Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which apparently took over many duties of the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator (UNDRO). UNDRO’s record wasn’t especially good. According to the Monitor, “the U.N. has learned from past attempts that its best role in disaster scenes is to pool the efforts of national governments, not to do the work itself.” OCHA, says the Monitor, has a “realistic mandate.” But Chatterbox isn’t aware that the creation of a Griefbusters-type force has ever been tried. Clearly, whatever small improvements the United Nations has made in international coordination didn’t prevent the Turkish government from telling many foreign rescue workers to leave; even before 4-year-old Ismail Cimen was pulled out, alive, from under a collapsed balcony yesterday, German, Japanese, British, and Austrian rescuers had gone home. Meanwhile (according to yesterday’s Toronto Globe and Mail), a Canadian team of 200 soldiers was being told by some Turkish officials that the field hospital and water-purification systems it had brought were needed, and by other Turkish officials that they were not. Exaggerated deference to an incompetent Turkish government doesn’t strike Chatterbox as the way to go.

The original New Republic Griefbusters editorial, published after Mexico City’s disastrous 1985 earthquake, said:

A flexible rapid deployment force would report to a single director. More important, it would know what each kind of disaster called for, and would either possess or have immediate access to the basic required equipment. The force could employ a semi-military structure, with reservists from member nations who could be called up at a moment’s notice … If we made a prior agreement with other nations, promising to help each other in case of disaster, the burden would be to refuse aid rather than to ask for it.

The editorial expressed a preference for limiting the disaster-relief force to U.S. allies, working under U.S. control. In a later editorial, the New Republic proposed U.N. control, rightly pointing out that “however problematic the U.N. remains politically, it ought to be able to function on a humanitarian level.” Either way is fine with Chatterbox.

The pathetic state of international disaster relief–arguably the United Nations is better at peacekeeping, which isn’t saying much–calls to mind Lytton Strachey’s description, in Eminent Victorians, of the anarchy with which Florence Nightingale was confronted when she set out to help wounded British soldiers in Crimea. (As Strachey makes clear, Nightingale’s fake “lady with the lamp” image as the mother of modern nursing completely obscures her real significance, which was as a ruthlessly effective administrative reformer, first of a single military hospital and later of the entire British military-hospital system.) But in Nightingale’s time, the British military at least had the excuse that the age of modern medicine, with its emphasis on sterility and proper ventilation of hospital rooms, was only just dawning. What’s our excuse?