How not to respond to a crisis

Observations on the tsunami

It was natural that the first anniversary of the tsunami should have received lavish coverage: with more than 275,000 killed and four million made homeless in 12 countries, this was an event on an extraordinary scale.

It was natural, too, that we should be reminded of the unprecedented international response. Governments, agencies and thousands of individuals launched appeals and collected enormous quantities of cash, food and medicines. The total raised exceeds £3bn.

Any inclination towards self-congratulation should be restrained, however, for despite the heart-warming images of reconstruction we are seeing, this worldwide relief effort was anything but a model for the future.

On the contrary, it was often chaotic, misguided, wasteful and thoughtless, reflecting a whole series of western misconceptions and media distortions. In many ways, in fact, we should take the tsunami aftermath as an example of how not to respond to a crisis.

Much has been made, for example, of the rapid international response, though in the first hours of any disaster it is family, friends and neighbours who save lives, give shelter, provide food and comfort. There is no time and little room for foreigners, who won't know who is missing, won't know the area and may have little understanding of the culture.

After the waters subsided, although the task of burying bodies rested with locals, a vital contribution was made by the foreign organisations that gave tents, blankets, food and medical assistance. That there were few deaths owing to starvation or lack of medical care, and no serious outbreaks of disease, was a remarkable achievement.

All the more remarkable because so many people from so many organisations descended on the stricken areas that they were tripping over each other. Many were stirred by nationalism and egotism, while some had other agendas, including Christian conversion. Compounding this was a near-total lack of co-ordination.

Good intentions often led to irrelevant, even insulting results: deliveries of used underwear, of thick woollen coats in tropical areas and of medicines past their sell-by dates, or the arrival of hundreds of unqualified volunteers.

The pressure to perform quickly and visibly - to show that something was being done - became formidable, and the results were often unfortunate.

An obvious early need was to replace lost fishing boats, and today the beaches of many fishing villages are so jammed with boats that it is difficult to launch them at all. Some fishermen amassed small fleets, and even farmers were given boats. As a result, fish prices tumbled.

Many temporary shelters were built that no one would live in - the so-called "tsunami prisons". In some areas, foreign agencies created appalling inflation, with land prices quadrupling, construction wages doubling and market prices spiralling.

Cash handouts, sometimes vaguely linked to work, are now contributing to aid dependence and, as assistance is generally based on property ownership, the gap between the general poor and house owners is widening.

External pressure for speed has also influenced the final stage in rehabilitation: the construction of new houses.

While no one in Europe would live in a house thrown up in a month, the expectation is that humanitarian organisations should be building at that pace.

Many permanent homes have been constructed badly, in areas without infrastructure, and on European-style estates totally alien to tsunami victims. Often, canvas or wooden structures have to be added to allow traditional cooking on open wood fires. Sometimes the developments are miles from the destroyed homes they are designed to replace, and to which most survivors wish to return.

There are four main lessons we can learn, which will save lives and reduce suffering in any future disaster:

1. Only a few experienced, well-known international humanitarian organisations should receive funding.

2. All programmes should be beneficiary-driven and not dreamt up at a distance and imposed.

3. The definition of a disaster victim needs to include the poor who are indirectly affected.

4. The press and public need to learn that rehabilitation requires time and may be invisible to the camera.

Michael Stone has directed humanitarian programmes in disaster areas for the UN and NGOs including the Red Cross. He has just returned from the tsunami region, where he conducted a survey of the impact of relief efforts