Critiques of disaster relief

COMMENTARY -   Last week, The Guardian reported that two survivors of the West African Ebola virus epidemic had decided to sue the government of Sierra Leone, accused of embezzling up to one third of the international donations aimed towards fighting the virus. Indeed, over $15 million are unaccounted for, and many claim that this lack of governmental transparency violates survivor’s rights to life and health. [1] These developments prompt us to question the actual impact of disaster relief, and consider its many flaws. In this article, we will start by defining the concept of disaster relief in legal terms, and then briefly examine its role and application today. Then, we will move on to studying the shortcomings of disaster relief, as portrayed in academic research as well as various current affairs.



What is disaster relief ?

Disaster relief is defined as the many services and material/financial support made available to communities, individuals and governments that have experienced important losses caused by a disaster. In the international legal order, a ‘disaster’ refers to human-made or natural catastrophes. Concerning the former, civil disturbances such as riots, pollution or terrorism qualify, while the latter can be broken down into three categories: meteorological (hurricanes, for instance), topological (earthquakes etc.), and biological (disease epidemics). [2]

For long, disaster relief was considered a local effort, but increasingly globalized societies have made it an international and national undertaking. In developed countries like the US, most of the assistance is provided by the federal government and coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who elaborates a Federal Response Plan after the president has declared an emergency/disaster. Funding as well is in large part granted by the government, as exemplified by the Disaster Assistance Act of 1988, through which Congress made $3.5 billion available to US farmers during a severe drought. [3] On the other hand, developing countries often rely on support from organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, as well as international funding and assistance, despite national governments’ responsibility in managing the aid efforts. [4]

The concept of disaster relief has nonetheless evolved over the years, shifting from ad hoc, case-by-case relief operations to more generalized and codified prevention. [5] Although many have argued this new system is better adapted, many critiques of the application of disaster relief continue to emerge, namely concerning inefficiency, corruption and lack of accountability, and motives for donations and assistance.   


Critiques of the application of disaster relief

To start with, researchers and the media have pointed to the current inefficiency of disaster relief operations and officials.  Indeed, as William F. Shughart, an American economist, argues, Hurricane Katrina (that hit the American Gulf Coast in 2005) revealed “massive governmental failure at the local, state and federal levels”. [6] According to him, the crisis provoked by the hurricane – the extent of which can be measured through the comparison of New Orleans to “Baghdad under water” by former Louisiana Senator John Breaux – was a direct consequence of the unpreparedness of public officials and the FEMA. [7] It has been reported that the American government had failed not only to react promptly once the storm had hit, but also to anticipate the crisis at hand, in the first part by ignoring the need to strengthen the New Orleans levee system for several years (leading to over 50 failures of levees and flood walls protecting the state), and in the second by failing to pre-deploy emergency supplies, or organize evacuations before Katrina reached the land. [8] In his article titled Katrinanomics: The politics and economics of disaster relief, Shughart asserts that “these shortcomings can be traced to the inertia, corruption, and waste regularly found at all the levels of public authority”, suggesting the Hurricane Katrina situation is not an isolated case, but rather an adequate depiction of the concept of disaster relief: disorganized, inefficient, and short-sighted. [9]  

Another critique alluded to in the previously mentioned article is the lack of accountability and prevalence of corruption. This is well illustrated in the Sierra Leone example, in which relief funding was allegedly looted by a corrupt government, thus breaking promises of free healthcare and financial compensation made by said government to Ebola survivors. [10] Furthermore, experts have noted that private relief organizations pose problems for accountability and transparency as well. In fact, private NGOs have been gaining influence in globalized disaster relief scenarios, and are today frequently given more legitimacy than weakened local authorities. [11] A notable instance of how problematic this may become can be found in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, during which NGOs worked on the field, regardless of the little consultation with governmental agencies and community organizations they carried out, thus rendering homogenized endeavors and transparency difficult. [12]

Finally, an element that has attracted attention is the international motives for donations and assistance. As James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA declared, “disasters are very political events”. [13] In other words, political agendas are often concealed behind efforts to provide relief. To start with, political scientists A. Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, and Douglas A. Van Belle have claimed that foreign and domestic policy is the “overriding determinant” in the allocation of military and economic assistance. [14] Indeed, political considerations have been found to influence both the decision to provide relief, and in what quantity and capacity. [15] Moreover, media attention and the advertisement of certain disasters is also highly politicized, and research has shown that what encourages people to donate to disaster relief fund-raising appeals is media representation and visibility, which itself is skewed by the political environment of a given country. [16] In this sense, motivations for donations and assistance seem to be biased and driven by national interests, thus failing to reflect and respond to the actual need for disaster relief.  



Accordingly, disaster relief has evolved in recent years with the influence of globalization, which brings forth new considerations on corruption, public and private accountability, and biased perspectives. What seems to be needed is an official, international broker for disaster relief, to coordinate efforts to provide assistance and ensure transparency.

 By Manon Fabre - Research Assistant at CIPADH


[1] The Guardian. Ebola survivors sue government of Sierra Leone over missing millions.

[2] Kovács, G., & Spens, K. M. (2007). Humanitarian logistics in disaster relief operations. International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, 37(2), 99-114.

[3] Glauber, J. W., Collins, K. J., & Barry, P. J. (2002). Crop insurance, disaster assistance, and the role of the federal government in providing catastrophic risk protection. Agricultural Finance Review, 62(2), 81-101.

[4] The Guardian. Rebuilding a country: from disaster relief to sustainable development.

[5] Rivera, J. D., & Miller, D. S. (2006). A brief history of the evolution of United States’ natural disaster policy. Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, 12(1), 5-14.

[6] Shughart, W. F. (2006). Katrinanomics: The politics and economics of disaster relief. Public Choice, 127(1), 31-53.

[7] IBID

[8] IBID

[9] IBID

[10] The Guardian. Ebola survivors sue government of Sierra Leone over missing millions.

[11] Pandya, C. (2006). Private authority and disaster relief: the cases of post-tsunami Aceh and Nias. Critical Asian Studies, 38(2), 298-308.

[12] IBID

[13] Shughart, W. F. (2006). Katrinanomics: The politics and economics of disaster relief. Public Choice, 127(1), 31-53.

[14] Drury, A. C., Olson, R. S., & Belle, D. A. V. (2005). The politics of humanitarian aid: US foreign disaster assistance, 1964–1995. Journal of Politics, 67(2), 454-473.

[15] IBID

[16] Bennett, R., & Kottasz, R. (2000). Emergency fund-raising for disaster relief. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 9(5), 352-360.