Do the right thing.

Here at the 36th Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, academics and practitioners alike are finding much to talk about. The last twelve months have seen an apocalyptic run of earthquakes, floods, drought, wildfires, tornadoes, health emergencies, and industrial spills. Yet even as such hazards multiply and their associated fatalities and property losses mount, natural disasters remain no more than a fringe societal concern. American minds are instead riveted on federal debt ceilings, jobs, healthcare, war, and other issues. Those stupefying federal deficits? Bad enough, but at the state and local levels, government budgets are even more precarious. With American attention directed elsewhere, funding for disaster mitigation, emergency preparedness, response, and recovery doesn’t meet the need.

Amidst all this, some meeting participants have been taking a look at ethical issues. Several speakers in different sessions touched on the subject. A Sunday afternoon breakout session made ethics the focus.

Just a few vignettes, to give a flavor:

In the first plenary session Sunday morning, speakers looking at the recovery from the 2010 Haitian earthquake painted a bleak picture. And it wasn’t just that the recovery process there is slow – likely to take a decade or more. Speakers suggested that Haiti was in reality a “republic of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).” They stated that hundreds, perhaps even thousands of NGO’s were operating in Haiti. 75% of Haitian health care was being provided by NGO’s. The cholera epidemic which followed the earthquake has further set back efforts to return control of health care to the Haitians. They argued that the international community has marginalized Haitian institutions, weakening their capacity to coordinate the recovery.

In the afternoon ethics session, one speaker described the response of outside NGO’s in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He focused on two Central American villages nearby one another. The first received outside “help” in rebuilding its homes from a group that made no effort to consult with locals on issues ranging from price to size to construction and layout. The second received nominally comparable help with housing reconstruction, but sought out and conformed to villagers’ preferences, eventually making the units slightly larger and changing fabrication details. The speaker reported that in the first village some people refused to sleep in their new homes. They mistrusted the construction, and feared it too would collapse in the event of a second earthquake or aftershock. The crime rate rose; the town’s economy didn’t recover so rapidly following the hurricane as it did in the second one.

He suggested that in fact far too many non-governmental disaster relief efforts were focused more on donors – where their next dollars were coming from – than they were on their beneficiaries. He argued that this posed a serious conflict of interest.

The second speaker, a doctor, spoke to the difficulty of doing medical triage in Haiti in effect deciding who would have a chance to live and who would die. He emphasized several times that we should all read the humanitarian code of conduct. You can find it here. He too emphasized the importance of involving beneficiaries, not just donors in the response.

A third speaker explained his efforts to stand up an accountability program. Nominally, his project provides an external evaluation of disaster relief agencies, weighing how they spent their funds and how effective those expenditures proved. He also compared how much agencies actually spent on communities versus how much they held in reserve. He sparked audience reaction. Some said such analysis was in fact too simplistic. Others suggested that such watchdog efforts would have a chilling effect on disaster relief efforts. He countered, saying he only compared any agency’s performance and accomplishments against its own stated goals, not against any external standard.  

Some present argued that all too often ethical standards were designed to protect the NGO’s, not the beneficiaries. Those comments called to mind a session at previous Hazards Workshop where panelists had described the role of institutional review boards at universities in shaping their research. At that time panelists had reached the same conclusion, that the review process was designed to protect universities from litigation as opposed to look after the interests of the hazard survivors.

Speakers summarizing the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in the Monday morning plenary didn’t paint a much brighter picture, especially when it came to TEPCO’s performance with regard to ensuring the safety of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima.

Discussions both in these sessions and in side conversations suggested correctly that ethical concerns shouldn’t focus only on some short time interval near the acute phase of the disaster itself. Rather there are ethical issues at every stage. Take levees. What about the ethics of the levee approach to flood mitigation in the first place? Or the decision(s) to move people, homes, and workplaces behind that levee once constructed? The ethics of levee maintenance? Or reconstruction following a levee failure?

What’s sobering is that none of these discussions provided definitive answers. Each was little more than exploratory. The discussion is going to grow more complicated, more tense, more urgent over coming years.

But you and I don’t get away with just viewing this conversation as spectators. It’s not just emergency managers, the Red Cross, Oxfam, and all those other NGO’s, those doctors practicing triage at the emergency site, or researchers come to analyze what went wrong who are involved. You and I are as well. Individual responsibility comes into play. We worry about our kids’ schools, the neighborhood, etc. But are we allowing our family to live in a floodplain? On a fault zone? In our communities, do we hold our public officials and local business leaders accountable for developing hazard mitigation and emergency plans?

In an interdependent society, the most basic questions are ever with us:

Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? In the face of hazards, what are my responsibilities to my family? The larger community?

We all want to do the right thing.

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