The U.S. Government's Response to Disasters: Myth, Mistakes, and Recovery | Wilson Center

The U.S. Government's Response to Disasters: Myth, Mistakes, and Recovery

Whether the result of nature, war, or human error, disasters prompt large-scale responses by governments and NGOs. Millions of dollars are poured into affected regions, and yet globally death rates continue to rise and whole populations lack adequate shelter, sanitation, or access to health services. Wilson Center on the Hill and the Comparative Urban Studies Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center, in conjunction with the Fetzer Institute, hosted a discussion on the challenges posed by international crises and an examination of the U.S. response to disasters worldwide. Blair Ruble, director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program, moderated the event and contributed his expertise on the myriad of problems facing modern urbanization.

Frederick Burkle, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and fellow at the Harvard Humanaitarian Initiative began by offering some reflections on the state of human rights protection in the 21st century. The nature of warfare has changed considerably since the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and Burkle noted that this new brand of mainly asymmetric warfare poses new challenges for the protection of human rights. The guidelines "no longer apply," he said, and suggested that new thinking is needed to address the rights of civilians caught in disaster zones surrounding wars that no longer reflect traditional norms.

Discussing the impact rapid urbanization, Burkle stated that the dialogue about the world's poor needs revision because poverty has increasingly become an "urban crisis". He stressed that humanitarian efforts in urban areas are not commensurate with existing challenges; 72 percent of today's poor live in "middle income" countries, which shifts the narrative that has primarily focused on "poor countries". In some areas of Mumbai, for example, one million people are housed per square kilometer, further exacerbating serious problems with sanitation and the prevalence of disease. Burkle noted that the SARS outbreak in 2003 led to a stronger World Health Organization, but that the international public health sector needs further development to address international public health crises, especially those in large cities. He cited studies done after the SARS outbreak, which found that some countries had effective regional approaches to epidemic disasters, but that those strategies started to break down on a local level. A stronger WHO provides important capacities for global scares like H1N1, and Burkle argued that all nations ought to pursue similar international cooperation to prepare for natural disasters

Leonard Doyle, from the International Organization for Migration, has spent the past several years working on relief efforts in Haiti and added his observations regarding the response to the January 2010 earthquake. He described the crisis facing Haiti as particularly urban, even though Port au-Prince, its biggest city, was home to only about one million people before the earthquake. Although some observers might be encouraged by the data showing that refugee camps have shrunk from 1.5 million people to about 680,000, Doyle pointed out that many of those displaced have been forced out, only to return to the their original homes, which are now structurally unsound and located in areas prone to health hazards. These displaced people, many of whom have nowhere to go, pose perhaps the single greatest challenge to the earthquake recover program. Doyle argued that until Haitians have the conversation about land rights amongst themselves, the refugee problem will remain unsolved.

Arif Hasan's experience working on disaster relief stems from his work in Pakistan as an advisor to the Orangi Pilot Project and the Founder and Chairman of the Urban Resource Center. He noted the problems of corruption in post-disaster areas are exacerbated by centralized aid, and by the lack of communication in the delivery of aid. Hasan used the example of the central plan to deliver temporary aid money in Islamabad family-by-family that required the recipients to have bank cards and IDs; few in the region did, and corruption grew on a local level in the processing of the money. Pre-disaster institutions determine the quality of the response, he said and argued that corruption is secondary to governance in the order of what to fix. Hasan mentioned USAID specifically as an example of an organization that offers "grandiose" projects without involving the people, which he believes is an essential prerequisite for the "climate of trust" that allows aid to be distributed fairly.

Eliane Ubalijoro, a professor of Public-Private Sector Partnerships at McGill University, concluded the panel by offering her experiences growing up in Rwanda and experiencing the aftermath of the genocide in her country. "We must welcome the discomfort," she urged, as part of recognizing where aid money should flow, and which "spaces" are open for help. She stressed how international crises touch everyone in every part of the world. Echoing her fellow presenters, Ubalijoro focused on the importance of the voices of the aggrieved for determining aid policies that have "synergy, success and sustainability."

In conclusion, Burkle noted that global public health standards are suffering everywhere, and suggested that public health infrastructure needs serious revamping. Doyle added that the government should follow up on Secretary Clinton's most recent QDDR report and share the Department of State's primary responsibility for development with USAID, to rework a role Doyle suggested is a "bad commentary" on the U.S. foreign aid strategy. The panelists emphasized that improved synergy between governments and private donors, keeping long term consequences in mind, and healthy dialogue with local people and institutions are essential components of a competent aid strategy that the U.S., or any government, should endeavor to adopt.

John Coit, Intern, Wilson Center on the Hill
David Klaus, Wilson Center on the Hill


  • Leonard Doyle

    Country Spokesperson, Haiti, International Organization for Migration
  • Arif Hasan

    Adviser, Orangi Pilot Project, and Founder and Chairman, Urban Resource Centre, Pakistan
  • Eliane Ubalijoro

    Adjunct Professor of Practice for Public-Private Sector Partnerships, Centre for Developing-Area Studies, McGill University, and Member of the Presidential Advisory Council for Rwandan President Paul Kagame
  • Blair A. Ruble

    Distinguished Fellow
    Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
  • Frederick "Skip" Burkle

    Senior Scholar
    Professor; Senior Fellow, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University