When Disaster Relief Is a Disaster

Humanitarian workers for the Swiss Red Cross (SRK) pile up boxes of blankets as they load a truck in Bern, Switzerland. (Image credit: AP/Keystone, Edi Engeler)

In an early episode of "The Simpsons," when Homer has a heart attack and dies, his boss Mr. Burns offers a perfunctory gesture and instructs his assistant to send Homer's wife a ham. (Homer returns to life once his soul hears about the ham.)

The humanitarian aid industry might not be so different in its mechanical reaction to complex and diverse emergencies that arise around the globe, according to researchers from Harvard School of Public Health.

If not ham (which was apparently sent in cans to the Muslim populations of Iraq and Afghanistan), then it is the donation of inappropriate clothes or services based on misconceptions of what is needed when disaster strikes. Ultimately this can do more harm than good.

While television news images of happy and feeble volunteers unable to strike a nail with a hammer in the Katrina cleanup might make this crystal clear, only recently has the altruistic but often inefficient efforts of humanitarian aid groups been studied scientifically.

Michael VanRooyen, co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, summarizes the issues involved in disaster relief in a new lecture at Harvard called "Humanitarian Myths: Twelve Myths and Misconceptions in Disaster Response," as well as in articles last year in the journal Prehospital and Disaster Medicine.

'I'm with stupid' t-shirts

Disaster victims have needs, but what is poorly understood is precisely what is needed by whom when, where, and for how long, and how the goods and services should be delivered.

Food can rot; medicine can be administered haphazardly; medical equipment often can't be used for lack of electricity or proper storage; and clothes are often inappropriate for the culture or climate, ultimately resold, undermining the local economy, VanRooyen and his colleagues have found. VanRooyen said that surplus materials can reduce the demand for local products, which closes factories and places people out of work.

Complicating matters is the proliferation of humanitarian aid groups, which function with little professional oversight or coordination with local governments and disaster relief experts. Everyone wants to be first, and everyone wants to be a hero. Such bravado and chaos has led to deaths, such as in Zaire in the mid-1990s when cholera hit poorly operated refugee camps.

Disastrous misconceptions

Among the 12 misconceptions that VanRooyen's group has identified are the notions that food, aid and clothing are always needed; that large-scale relief efforts are the best way to control humanitarian crises; that locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is always the best alternative; and that foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed.

To make disaster relief more effective, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has proposed professionalizing the field of humanitarian aid. This includes the formation of technical support units within humanitarian non-governmental organizations that study and quantify efforts and outcomes in each major relief effort and then create a set of best practices.

The buzz-phrase is "evidence-based," borrowed from the field of medicine. One example of this is a handbook on refugee health from the Nobel-Prize-winning group Medicins sans Frontieres.

VanRooyen doesn't want to discourage donations and volunteerism. He calls on aid groups to improve through self-analysis. The same can be applied to the eager public: If you can't hang a picture frame, it might be better to take out your checkbook than your toolset to join Habitat for Humanity.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.