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Interview with Raymond Offenheiser on Katrina relief efforts

Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
Interviewee: Raymond C. Offenheiser
September 9, 2005

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Relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been plagued by poor communication and uneven distribution of goods and services, says Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “It’s a bit like having a fire station with no fire engines because, in effect, the fire department has been de-funded and the fire engines have been sold off,” he says. Offenheiser, who has more than twenty years of international development experience, discusses Oxfam’s first-ever U.S.-based relief effort, the difficulties of distributing aid, and the “institutional failure” on the part of the U.S. government’s response.

What are your impressions of the ongoing relief efforts in the Gulf?

First, this is the first time Oxfam America, an organization with a thirty-five-year history, has responded to an emergency like this in the United States. Doing this in our home territory, we’re finding our way along in a context that’s somewhat new to us. What we’ve done is send assessment teams down to determine where we could add value to the response. A week in, we’ve found there are significant levels of activity, with a military presence securing areas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) beginning to get legs under itself, and a Red Cross presence.

But there are also significant gaps throughout the region where there is very limited presence [of relief workers], particularly in some rural towns and communities, which, earlier this week, had still not seen a FEMA person other than perhaps someone coming through to pass out a survey questionnaire. And we’ve seen an uneven distribution of benefits across the region, weak coordination, and poor communication. So there’s still probably a need for building the kind of architecture that you generally have in these kinds of emergencies with a strong communications infrastructure that enables people to know what’s going on and ensure equitable distribution of goods and services through the effective areas. We still got a ways to go to make that happen.

Is it bad communication or simply a lack of funds or supplies that is slowing down the relief process?

Well, there’s been a lot of money poured in and money’s being expended. But the problem is you can have lots of goods piled up, but if you don’t have a good coordination mechanism and communications system you can rely on, then things either go unutilized or they’re poorly distributed. We’ve seen this, for example, in the case of Biloxi , Mississippi , where there’s a strong infrastructure in more middle-class, white sections of west Biloxi that are more able to articulate their needs and requests. But in the poor areas of east Biloxi, where the institutional infrastructure is perhaps weaker, they’re not necessarily being heard or attended to, to the same degree or effect.

I think what we see here is a large institutional failure, not only of our federal institutional system but also at the state and local levels. And we’re also seeing the effects of sustained poverty on communities over time where you get basically the weakening of institutions in areas where you have the greatest need for social welfare. In the face of an emergency like this, it’s a bit like having a fire station with no fire engines because, in effect, the fire department has been de-funded and the fire engines have been sold off.

How has this relief operation compared to Oxfam’s relief operations in Africa, Asia, or Latin America?

Well, we were active in the tsunami areas, for example, and certainly that’s an emergency on a scale that’s equivalent to this in many ways, particularly in the Indonesian case. A lot of the kinds of infrastructure we’re accustomed to putting into place quickly, because we know we’re going to have to do it, oftentimes in very poor countries with very limited communication and institutional infrastructure. In this case, we assume because the United States is as rich and institutionally dense as it is, these institutions would be up and operating quickly, efficiently, and effectively, meeting all the kinds of standards of performance that we have to meet when we do this kind of work internationally. That’s not happening.

Why does aid not appear to be getting to the Gulf region from abroad? Are countries sending the wrong kinds of material aid?

I think here in the United States we never contemplated we’d be in a position where we’d have an emergency on a scale that would require assistance from outside of our own nation. So I don’t think there is any provision for an institutional arrangement to facilitate that; particularly in the era of terrorism when so much of the focus and planning are on how we are going to respond ourselves to a massive terrorist strike that could even involve weapons of mass destruction. In some ways, it defies imagination that we’re not thinking along these lines and not contemplating that we could have a massive loss of life and, on occasion, need supplies from other countries if a region as large as this becomes debilitated. So it seems to be a piece that’s missing from our core strategic planning for homeland security that one would think would have been part of the drill.

As far as the quality and kinds of goods [being sent], I think many are from countries accustomed to responding to large emergencies in Africa and elsewhere, which know you basically need food and water as basic commodities. A lot of this is being botched up by [U.S.] government emergency-response groups. So I don’t think there are masses of inappropriate aid necessarily coming in. I mean, the Swedish government and a number of others were turned down. But I think those have now been reversed and we’ve tried to mobilize NATO to coordinate some of this relief effort.

Is cash what’s most needed?

Cash is the most useful input for these emergency responses. In part, this is because it’s the most fungible asset and enables one to invest in local community response so those first-responders up and working actually have the money to go five counties over to the Wal-Mart and buy the supplies they need rather than have a lot of things arrive that are superfluous, duplicative, or in excess. So money has the ability to enable people to make reasonably well-informed choices closer to where the problems are.

Should the United States accept aid from developing countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh?

I think, frankly, it’s very appropriate and that the offer of such goods and services from these countries is a matter of national pride for them and for the United States to spurn such contributions, in some sense, I think would be taken entirely the wrong way. Interestingly, after 9/11, Bangladesh, which is a very poor country, offered a large volume of tea, which is what they could provide reasonably and affordably.

The question is: What would we do with [the gifts] and how would they be distributed? They might not be the most appropriate for the need, but if we can determine these gifts are reasonably appropriate and can be put to work in some reasonable way, then why not? If you have packaged tea and tea bags, you could send them in bulk and distribute them across three southern states, and people could drink tea at no cost, then why not?

What about accepting aid from countries like Venezuelaor Cuba, which are on poor diplomatic terms with the United States?

I think in these particular cases it’s an opportunity for the international community to demonstrate solidarity. After the [2003] Bam earthquake [in Iran], we certainly tried to provide aid to the victims, and I think that was gratefully received by the Iranians. So why wouldn’t we, in this particular case, take aid from Cuba ? It may be a case where we have to swallow our pride, and there’s a question here of, in the face of an emergency like this and there are so many people affected, shouldn’t we be somewhat humble and respectful of people’s generosity and receive those gifts in that spirit?

Do you think the influx of aid from abroad was more a result of a feeling of solidarity or of shock at the images of refugees in the United States?

I think there is a certain amount of shock at the scale of this emergency and the fact that it’s proven to be beyond the capacity of U.S. institutions to handle. It’s been a surprise for both governments and publics around the world and people are still digesting what all that means. I think the expressions of generosity, some of them are coming through private institutional channels like Oxfam and CARE and the International Red Cross, and then the decisions on the part of governments to give are made by taking counsel internally and consulting with our own political leadership about what might be appropriate and politely received or not. For example, I know that [UN Emergency Relief Coordinator] Jan Egeland went to the State Department and was told to do an assessment of what assets [the United Nations] can provide. So the United Nations is kind of the highest expression of international solidarity. I think it only follows that other nations might get behind the UN effort.

How long do you expect Oxfam and other relief agencies to remain in the region?

We’re trying to be a support to the ongoing effort, raise roughly $5 million, and complement ongoing work, particularly in disadvantaged communities that may not be at the center of the major responses. We’re also focusing on some of the immigrant-worker populations that may not be attended to by the major institutions. We’re doing those assessments now. I expect we’ll be there for about a year. A lot will depend on how the whole housing issue and the repatriation—or return of families to their communities—is handled.

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