Illustration by Victor Kerlow
Illustration by Victor Kerlow

The reports coming out of the Philippines are all too familiar. Shattered villages, corpses strewn across battered beaches, dazed survivors picking through the wreckage of their former lives. As I write, Typhoon Haiyan (described in some news reports as a “supertyphoon”) appears to be the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, and one of the worst ever in Asia -- a region that has known no shortage of calamities.

Many of the survivors are talking about a “wall of water” -- most of the damage was caused not by rain or winds, but by a massive storm surge that followed. Nine years ago, on Dec. 26, 2004, I heard precisely the same description from survivors of the Asian tsunami that struck the part of the coast where I live, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

On the morning of that disaster, I raced down to the beach. I found a highway gurgling with water, and the body of a boy spread across the sand. The wave had receded; the ocean was flat again. But all anyone could talk about was the wall that had slammed down on them.

The Asian tsunami remains one of the biggest natural disasters in mankind’s history, a calamity that claimed more than 200,000 lives in 14 countries. Haiyan, mercifully, does not appear to have reached the same level of destruction: One official guessed that perhaps 10,000 people may have died, most in the central islands of the Philippines. Nonetheless, the affected regions are likely to witness the same influx of relief workers and aid money that followed the tsunami (and that followed other recent disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and, to a lesser extent, the tremendous flooding that same year in Pakistan).

Broad Similarities

Every disaster is particular. Different regions and nations face different challenges (and opportunities) in confronting nature’s fury. Still, there are enough broad similarities to make it worth asking: What lessons does the Asian tsunami have to offer those responding to Haiyan?

In the weeks and months after the tsunami, the area where I live (like affected regions across the Indian Ocean) witnessed something of a second wave: a veritable tide of air-conditioned cars and vans, of relief workers from around the world. These men and women (pink-faced and sweaty under the South Indian sun, dressed in clean, ironed clothes that contrasted poignantly with the rags worn by survivors) poured into the villages around here, promising succor.

In many ways, their concern was heartening. But one of the central lessons of that disaster is that international aid, while absolutely essential, can also be too much of a good thing. It’s not just quantity that counts; the quality is essential, too.

After the tsunami, villages and towns across Asia abounded with tales of profligate and unnecessary donations. Some survivors reportedly received packages containing ski jackets, Viagra and, in Indonesia, some 75 tons of expired medications. Along this coast, many villages were similarly overwhelmed by an unanticipated windfall of fishing boats. For aid agencies, boats make a lot of sense: They are tangible, big and shiny, and easy to photograph and include in publicity brochures. But by the time fishermen were receiving their third or even fourth boats, it was clear that much of the outside world’s largesse was utterly removed from the needs and priorities of aid recipients.

This kind of inefficiency is not unusual. Nine months after the tsunami, it was estimated that government agencies and nongovernmental organizations had managed to spend just more than a third of donated relief funds. The truth is that the kinds of communities most affected by natural disasters often don’t have the capacity to absorb such large amounts of money. Too much money can lead to a version of what economists call “Dutch disease” -- a condition in which sudden wealth (often as the result of a natural resources boom) can have unanticipated deleterious consequences. The proliferation of fishing boats on the coast here, for instance, led to the overexploitation of already dwindling fishing stocks. Similarly, many tsunami-affected nations witnessed a sharp rise in construction costs as a result of all the reconstruction.

Social Transformation

None of this is inevitable. Handled wisely, relief money can of course have a positive effect -- and even, over the long term, enable fundamental social transformation. It’s easy to be cynical about the international aid industry (and it is, without doubt, an industry). But done right, aid can fulfill the goal of not only rebuilding shattered societies but also -- in what has become something of a mantra for the industry -- “building back better.”

A few lessons from the tsunami are particularly worth heeding. First, all the aid money in the world and the best-intentioned aid workers will founder if local governments are not responsive or efficient. Development (and disaster management in particular) is to a large extent a problem of coordination. Governments play a central role in this coordination, and especially in ensuring that international money is channeled to those who most need it on the ground. Those regions that had the most effective response to the tsunami -- Malaysia, for instance, and to an extent India -- benefited tremendously from centralized and empowered decision-making authority, and from an emphasis on accountability and minimizing what people in this region euphemistically call “leakage” of donor funds.

Aid agencies often have no choice but to coordinate with governments. It is equally essential, too, that they coordinate with another constituency: grass-roots civil society organizations, represented for instance by women’s self-help groups or informal village leadership councils. Such groups have a large role to play in ensuring that aid is transferred in a culturally sensitive manner that minimizes social disruption and conflict. After the tsunami, many fishermen in this area resisted being relocated farther inland; in protests and demonstrations, they argued that they were being moved away from their homes and the site of ancestral livelihoods. Then, when they did agree to move, they encountered opposition from agricultural populations who feared an influx of other castes and ethnicities. The whole process was needlessly confrontational, and could have been smoothed by a more consultative, participatory approach.

Flowing Money

A more participatory approach can have other benefits. Benjamin Larroquette, a friend and United Nations official who has worked on a wide range of natural disasters around the world, including the tsunami, told me that “when money flows in, it naturally flows to the most powerful and makes them even more powerful.” Local interest groups are adept at co-opting often naive foreign aid workers. The best way to counter this trend and ensure what Larroquette calls “equity in recovery” is for aid workers to encourage the participation in relief work of traditionally disempowered groups.

Almost a decade after the tsunami, one of the most striking things about its aftermath is the way the aid has altered society along this coast, often for the better. One of the most transformative, yet simple, ideas implemented by aid groups was to put the titles of newly built houses in the names of women. This decision has changed gender relations in many fishing communities, empowering mothers and wives and daughters. A similar effort to include the voices of other marginalized groups (the untouchable caste, for instance, or tribal populations) has likewise helped take at least small steps toward addressing millenniums-old patterns of discrimination.

It is early yet in the Philippines, and officials there will no doubt be focused on the immediate relief efforts: getting food and medicine to victims, preventing disease, restoring vital infrastructure. This makes eminent sense, and talk today about using aid as an opportunity for long-term social transformation may strike some as crass, even exploitative.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Asian tsunami, though, is that international aid is a powerful, even revolutionary force -- arguably as much so as large natural disasters themselves. It is up to aid workers and government agencies to ensure that force is directed in a positive direction. That is perhaps the only way to salvage some meaning out of tragedies like Haiyan, and to ensure that the thousands of lives they claim will not have been lost utterly in vain.

(Akash Kapur is the author of “India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India.")

To contact the writer of this article: Akash Kapur at akfeedback@akashkapur.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.