Fred Cuny was a disaster relief professional who specialized in out-of-the-box thinking. Cuny disappeared several years ago while on mission in Kosovo. The following principles are taken from a book which he authored called “Famine, Conflict and Response, A Basic Guide.” PBS’ Frontline produced a documentary on his life that provides rich information on his works and achievements: click here to learn more. I agree with Mr. Cuny that within each disaster lies a wealth of opportunities for fundamental change. Haiti is no exception, even when at first it appears that all that can be done is rush to give a handout.
The context of the emergency is crucial. Emergencies cannot be viewed as separate from local politics or economics. He stated: “for them (the government) control of disaster response cannot be separated from politics.” In every disaster, there are winners and losers, people who gain and people who are worse off. Clearly, the people hit worse are the poor. For Fred, poverty was a primary root cause of the vulnerability of people, and sending food, blankets, and traditional forms of assistance could not be done in a vacuum but had to be seen as impacting the economics, politics and development of a region.
Traditional responses by international agencies can cause more harm than good. Fred felt that international agencies had simplistic ideas of aid, ideas that assumed the best solutions came from overseas. He cautioned that international aid agencies must “re-examine their underlying assumptions about disasters and how people react. And about the nature of the organization that have been established to respond.” His criticism of agencies was harsh: “most agencies are still focusing on emergency needs, and few fully understand the events that occur in a disaster and how the intervention affects the overall outcome of recovery.”
International aid is a drop in the bucket compared with local aid. He wrote: “international aid is highly visible, yet it represents only a small part of the total recovery picture, both in terms of resources and actions taking place within the affected society.” This realization places international aid in perspective and should teach relief agencies humility and to look at what local people are doing.
The key to success in relief aid is involving local people directly. Fred was an active listener. He believed in communicating directly with people who had been affected by emergencies. He knew that victims of disasters are not helpless. He urged using the word participant, not victim. He urged that “decision making be locally based, not transferred to Geneva, New York, or Nairobi.” He knew that local people understood their situation best and that response mechanisms needed to be built on local skills and knowledge. “Good programs not only stress the local decision-making and involvement, but further reinforce the existing community structures (coping mechanisms).” In fact, he tried to dispel three myths about the behavior of victims: that victims are helpless; that disasters require outside assistance for the victims to cope; and that disasters wipeout indigenous coping mechanisms.
Relief and development are intricately linked. Fred wrote, “the basic problem was the conceptual failure by aid organization to link disasters and development. The relief agencies tended to view disasters solely as emergencies. This meant that the best way to respond was by providing emergency medical assistance, basic goods, and temporary emergency shelter.” And for Fred, this was shortsighted and often wrong. Fred believed emergencies were a time ripe for change in long-term economic and political structures. Issues of land tendency and relationships among economic and social classes were disturbed by emergencies and offered an opportunity for social and economic change. He also saw it was not just relief that had an impact on development but also that development impacted disaster response. Unfortunately, not many agencies heeded his prediction: “many agencies, especially those involved in both relief and development, will complete the circle, realizing that the connections between disasters and development also run in the other direction (that is, development and disasters).”
Relief aid is not a logistical exercise to get goods to people — it is a process to accelerate recovery. Fred criticized relief effort that viewed their work as a tactical or logistics problem. He emphasized that effective relief took into account the process that the local community was going through. “by failing to understand the elements of each community activity and their interrelationships, an outsider may respond inappropriately and delay or prevent a return to normal.”
Relief intervention teaches us lessons; we should heed the lessons learned from the past. Fred listed a series of lessons he had learned by the early 1980s. These included, among others not mentioned above: that relief and reconstruction operation should be conducted within the context of development; that people can do it and they know how; that people consistently preferred private and formal solutions over public and formal ones; that activity should be appropriate to the phase of the disaster; that massive relief can be counterproductive; that the anticipation of large-scale assistance by foreign agencies makes a local organizations reluctant to take relief measures; that relief efforts may obscure underlying political realities; that effective relief must see disaster assistance from the view of the victims and their requirements; that the reestablishment of the local economy is usually more important for disaster victims than material assistance.