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Natural disasters - what needs to happen next

by Eric Boa

Hatay, Turkey – after the February 6th earthquake

In 1997 I stayed with a family in Armenia, a medium-sized city in the main coffee-growing region of Colombia. My hosts were particularly agitated one breakfast time and clearly worried. My Spanish was poor but I recognized “terremoto” – earthquake.

Here in the city?” I’m a sound sleeper but couldn’t’ imagine ignoring tremors.

“No, not here” They showed me the newspaper. The earthquake was in Italy.

Colombia has a long history of earthquakes. Once you’ve been in a shaking building for even a short time (think seconds, not minutes) you don’t want to repeat the experience. My hosts had been in a shaking building on several occasions. Thereafter you are forever fearful.

Two years later an earthquake killed nearly two thousand people in Armenia and surrounding towns and villages. My friends survived but the destruction was plain to see when I returned in 2000. Poorly-constructed, as well as old, buildings collapsed with many people inside. Adana, a city six times bigger than Armenia, is in eastern Turkey and though on the edge of the February 6th earthquake zone it has clearly suffered badly. I visited in 2019 and took a photo of one of the main streets:

Adnan Kahveci Boulevard, Adana, eastern Turkey, 2019

I can only imagine what the same street looks like now.

For now the attention is on saving survivors and dealing with the astounding destruction that has caused misery to millions. Slowly, but inevitably, the scenes of utter despair and chaos will fade. The main challenges lie ahead as relief efforts give way to re-development. Think of it as the four Rs: replacing buildings, repairing roads and transport links, restoring services and regaining normalcy. These are the biggest challenges of all.

Turkey is not poor. It is classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank. Syria is the opposite, with poverty and war compounding a long list of dire conditions which make the four Rs difficult to achieve. Yet there are organisations and individuals striving to help people through systemic actions, those that aim to, in the words of E F Schumacher, an early development guru and author of Small is Beautiful, “find out what people do and help them do it better”.

Noble efforts by committed and dedicated folk in Turkey and Syria and beyond will make a difference. They will strengthen healthcare services, get schools running again and help provide new accommodation. Short-term support will morph into longer-term efforts to re-establish the things that people need to live and to ultimately flourish. Turkey will do better than Syria, unhindered by dysfunction and war. The hard work lies ahead and the rewards of development support are still to be realised. Will anyone be watching? Will anyone understand that the relief that follows natural disasters, that rush of support and compassion for extraordinary events, is not only a sticking plaster but one that comes off?

Distinguishing relief from international development is difficult to explain. I gave up doing so many years ago. I hoped that friends and family would understand why studying a bamboo disease in Bangladesh in the 1980s was important, when repeated natural disasters (flooding, cyclones – take your pick) compounded high infant mortality, lousy schooling, political bickering, transport strikes (take your pick again) and any number of intractable problems. I’m not sure I had a winning case to make for my project results. They seemed puny next to the suffering and struggling that over a hundred million people faced.

What comes next after a natural disaster is no different from what countries like Bangladesh, Uganda or Bolivia are already doing. The extremes of collapsing buildings or biblical flooding (as in Pakistan – now, there’s a disaster that’s faded from international view) are highly amplified examples of what international development has been dealing with for decades. Strengthen public bodies, train people, improve agriculture, create new enterprises, support better governance. There are endless targets, impact studies, goals and so on that attempt to map the results and learn what works best.

The results are more impressive than you may think. I’ve watched international development become more professional, business-like, and, yes, effective. Projects target problems that matter to people and, at least in my own area of plant health, have moved away from being curiosity-driven to trying to provide solutions that rely less on future aid projects to continue working. These solutions need to be self-supporting. This means, for example, working with agrochemical suppliers to ensure the steady supply of seed and fertilizers, and not maligning all of them as providers of poisonous pesticides. Sure, there are those who are happy to sell farmers products that are dangerous, but to dwell on the negatives is to neglect the positives.

If international development projects are largely hidden from public view this is not for want of proselytizing by those who work on projects or fund the work. The funds for international development fluctuate but I like to think that there’s always someone willing to support a good idea. There are, of course, bad projects, corruption and other inefficiencies, yet after fifty years of working in this area I’ve seen big improvements. I have also learnt to be pragmatic. When asked how much “uang adminstrasi”(administration charges) might be permitted for an agricultural project in North Sumatra, I hesitantly suggested 5% to the local government official. We agreed on 10%. It was his money after all, from the province, not the UK government’s funds, that paid my salary and ran the project.

There are seventeen Sustainable (International) Development Goals, replacing the eight Millennium Goals in 2015. It’s easy to pick holes in the grandiose ideas that lie behind the goals. Overall it’s a good scheme, one which allows practitioners to aim for a target and for the public to get a sense of what’s being done to improve lives, reduce inequality and enable everyone to live within the sum of natural resources.

It will always be a tussle explaining what international development achieves, particularly to sceptical politicians and a public that perceives other pressing priorities in times of financial hardships. What price reducing crop losses due to pests and diseases in Africa when the price of energy and food in the UK is uppermost in peoples minds? I take comfort in the fact that people remain compassionate, whatever their personal circumstances. I’m less sanguine about politicians, particularly those in the current UK Conservative Party who in 2020 vandalised what was the cabinet-level Department for International Development (DfID) by making it, as they had done to its predecessors from 1970 to 1974 and from 1979 to 1997, a part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Established by the Labour Party in 1997, DfID was a strategic and significant step forward in the UK's commitment to helping the world's poor.

Development not relief: plant health clinic, Meki, Ethiopia, 2013

Natural disasters are a timely reminder that we need to continue grappling long- term with the many challenges that poor people face. International development is based on moral and humanitarian imperatives, or even enlightened self-interest. If life in Eritrea or Afghanistan was more bearable and prospects for self-advancement more real, then fewer people would want to head for Europe.

It doesn’t require much to give hope. A farmer and his wife in the harsh altiplano region of Bolivia told me they were thrilled that their milk was collected every day. Ruth no longer had to walk 2km to a community dairy. Their 8 hectare farm worked better because of a project intervention.

Of all the grand bamboo projects I’ve been involved with I still remember the success of the simplest intervention. Thirty years after China sent furniture makers to Ethiopia to train local artisans in making bamboo furniture, there was still a thriving trade in Addis Ababa. Bamboo shops supported local producers who supported local growers. It didn’t matter that China had no long-term strategy for alleviating poverty in Ethiopia. The Chinese found something that the Ethiopians were already doing and helped them do it better.


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