Is Disaster Relief A Zero Sum Game?

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Clare Short seems to be suggesting it is. The former International Development Secretary suggests that independent relief efforts by the US and its coalition (Japan, India, and Australia) detract from the work of the UN:

“I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up,” she said.

“Only really the UN can do that job,” she told BBC Radio Four’s PM programme.

(Note: I'll forego more response to the suggestion made by Short that the US has traditionally been bad at responding to international disasters by noting one thing: Darfur.)

A fuller argument -- and it's not one that Short is making here, really -- is that there are benefits to housing the relief efforts under singular control. With a unified command structure, the relief efforts would, I think Short would agree, benefit from potentially greater information sharing and coordination of efforts as well as wasted efforts being avoided. Transaction costs of working across organizational boundaries would, in effect, be reduced through limiting the number of people calling the shots in responding to the crisis. Work done outside of this central structure incurs a loss from gaps in mismatched work or useless expenditure in duplicated efforts; the opportunity cost of this loss is the value the money/capital could have had in being put to efficient use.

Trouble is, things don't always work that way. Especially in cases such as disaster relief, flexibility and response time, and specialization of skills become important factors to consider. The sheer scope of the disaster means that a lot of issues have to be addressed, from clean water to bacteriology to housing to food distribution, electricity, communications, and many, many more. Centralization limits the number of people with authority to allocate resources, and thus limits the the amount of knowledge that can be held at any one level. Even if the role of superiors is largely managerial (that is, subject experts are still the ones making informed judgements, and look only to the leadership for yea/nay decisions or administrative assitiance), the ratio of leader/doer could be dangerously small and declining as new responsibilities occur. For instance, as the death toll climbs in multiple countries, the sheer number of people involved in the relief effort climbs. The leaders of sub-organizations find themselves competing for an ever-diminishing resource: the time and attention of superiors. A more decentralized system allows for workers to focus on their area of experise, and not have to wait in line to get the go-ahead to act. Additionally, the incentives for leaders of sub-organizations changes, perhaps subtly, towards presenting information that would raise the priority level of their subject-area in the eyes of the ultimate decision makers. This isn't to say that relief workers would be self-aggrandizing; rather, between the person working to secure safe water and the person working to prevent the outbreak of contagious disease there could be competition for the superior's time manifesting itself through the presentation of information in an attempt to make one subject appear more pressing than the other. The decision-maker then has to know enough to weigh comparative advantages of both efforts. Certainly people need water, but if you can make do with X amount, is that of lower priority than worry about the onset of disease that could kill another 50,000 people? How many will die without the water, though? And which system will better use this or that 10, 20, 100 people lined up and ready to work, right now? A decentralized system avoids some of these problems (not all of them, by any means; the question is one of scale).

Of more interest to Short, apparently, is the accrual of reputation based on the response efforts. Each new independent responder somehow de-ligitimizes the work of the others, according to what I can make of this view. Is the worry that people may respond on their own in the future, once they've seen that the US has chosen to work on its own? If the decentralized system proves as or more effective, what is the possible loss to the world by not having the UN coordinate it all? Shouldn't the concern be over what method best serves the people of South East Asia?

1 Comment

Ian,

Some excellent points ... great job expanding the issue to providing a concpetual basis for understandingthe issue.

I think that muliple agencies will ensure that more than one perspective is taken in addressing this huge task. The transaction costs associated with this task are huge and more bodies corredinating may actually lower costs relative to the victims (versus among agencies - which is not the real minimization problem)... I would posit that the entry of additional bodies will reduce transaction costs and speed execution.

As for Short's assertion that the UN has the moral mandate if backed is problematic. I agend would asert that it is the UN's lack of a moral mandate that propels other countries to intervene directly. The UN has shown that it does not manage humanitarian programs morally, effectively or efficiently across Africa. The enrty of additional players will assure donors and victims that teh world's nations truly are in union with them

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