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Interview with Laurence Simon on offers of international aid after Katrina

Interviewee: Laurence Simon
Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
September 8, 2005

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After Hurricane Katrina struck the United States’ Gulf Coast, leaving an estimated $200 billion damage in its wake, countries from around the globe lined up to offer material aid, cash, and condolences. The packages of aid ranged from small to large—from sixty Thai doctors and nurses to 500,000 British military ration packs to four CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Singapore. All told, around ninety nations pledged some support. Many of them are flood-prone countries in the developing world, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which are still reeling from their own natural calamities and hard-hit economies.

Laurence Simon, director of the Programs in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, says it may not be “appropriate for [the United States] to be accepting these genuine offers from the poorest countries.”

“We could accept it graciously out of respect to the [hurricane] victims,” he says, “but we have to ask ourselves: Given the resources of the United States, might it be wiser to thank the poorest of the nations and encourage them to make use of these funds for the unmet needs of victims of the tsunami and poverty alleviation?”

Simon, who has worked in international development, including disaster mitigation and recovery with Oxfam America, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank since 1977, discusses the politics of aid distribution, the recovery efforts of last year’s tsunami versus Hurricane Katrina, and the world’s reaction to the United States ’ worst natural disaster in recent memory.

What do you make of the outpouring of aid from all parts of the globe?

I would expect many around the world were genuinely moved by the humanitarian crisis that’s materialized.

Is this the first time emergency aid from the developing world has flowed into the United States following a natural disaster?

I’m not aware of a precedent, not on this scale. Nor am I aware of any other instance when aid was offered by the poorest developing nations. In my experience working with disaster relief, aid usually flows from developed to developing nations; it’s quite unusual for developing nations to be offering assistance to us.

Does it surprise you that so much aid was pledged from poorer nations?

It does, especially by the amount of aid from countries like Sri Lanka, which is still struggling to recover from the tsunami.

What was its offer to the United States?

I had heard the offer was a contribution to American Red Cross; I think around $25,000, which may sound small to us but actually represents a significant financial contribution given the needs within Sri Lanka.

Were these countries motivated more by shock or sympathy?

I could not begin to try to speculate on their motivations. I think there is a very genuine concern for the plight of the people hurt by this. Also, I believe the poorest countries are moved by the fact that so many of the victims of Katrina are marginalized citizens within our own society.

Should the United States be accepting aid from cash-strapped countries like Sri Lanka?

Certainly, for a country as poor as Sri Lanka, if it had a unique contribution, it would be a nice gesture to receive it. Any contribution would be a significant one. But if it’s merely an offer of cash, yes, we could accept it graciously out of respect to the [hurricane] victims, but we have to ask ourselves: We are honored by this gesture, but might it be wiser to make use of these funds for the unmet needs of victims of the tsunami?

I was a bit surprised [by Sri Lanka’s offer of aid] but more so by the statement I read from the [Bush] administration that these offers would be gratefully received. Still, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for us to be accepting these genuine offers from the poorest countries.

Historically speaking, how much do politics enter the equation when offering aid?

The United States has a long history of reaching out to countries hit by events of this magnitude and has been most generous, whether in slow disasters like drought or rapid ones like earthquakes. It’s been providing emergency relief despite its political positions or feelings. Take a recent example: The United States provided a very significant response to the hunger crisis [during the mid-1990s] in North Korea. We have given emergency relief to countries we don’t have diplomatic relations with over the past thirty years. We provided aid to Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime fell to Vietnamese troops.

But doesn’t U.S. aid usually come with strings attached?

Many people would argue there is often a political string attached and there’s expectation of some sort of payback. We still hear of “tied aid” where the recipient is obligated to buy American. But in disaster relief, I think the United States has been generous. It’s not as if a country is trying to buy some favors.

What were your impressions of the U.S. response to last year’s tsunami?

I think the initial reaction by [people in South Asia ] was a bit amazed, that is, that the United States’ initial response was so low, given the staggering need at the moment. But aid can be misunderstood. The United States, for instance, will need to make an assessment of what the needs are before it throws money or material aid to countries. Still, I think the United States was embarrassed by how little aid it offered initially.

Is it generally more difficult to send material aid versus simply writing a check?

Outside of cash, the delivery of emergency relief has always been very troubling. Commodities move slowly; it’s a matter of several months, not weeks, in almost every major effort. For instance, it’ll take usually six months for emergency food relief, once the international call is made. By that time, however, the famine situation or other emergencies on the ground are usually so far advanced that we’re already seeing tremendous death tolls. If cash is needed, obviously that could be provided more quickly.

What about sending human resources? Cuba, for example, offered to send more than 1,000 doctors.

If the United States accepts Cuba’s offer of doctors, there should be nothing to stop them from arriving in a day or two, other than, of course, diplomatic problems. How much closer can you get [than Cuba]? And no doubt Cuba would make good on its offer. It has one of the finest medical-health systems in the Western Hemisphere; these would be very qualified physicians.

The other issue is what the need is. Do we actually need doctors from outside the United States? In any disaster-relief operation, you tend to be flooded immediately with personnel and things you don’t need. Sri Lankans, for example, have a refined health-care system and [after the tsunami] they began turning away offers of medical personnel because they felt they could cover their needs from within.

Have countries—the United States included—ever refused emergency aid as a matter of pride?

The United States has always prided itself on being able to fill its needs, and I think it realizes that this disaster is on a very large scale. But the United States has the resources and technology [to recover]. The major lesson, however, from disaster recovery that applies here is that we want the victims of a natural disaster, who are often the very poor, to be better off than there were before. No one should be reconstructing the conditions of poverty.

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