Sunday, January 30, 2011

Disaster Politics and Operations Research

We are surrounded by politics and no organization is immune from politics.

The definition of the word politics I take from the Merriam-Webster dictionary and it includes:

1. the art or science of government;

2. the total complex of relations between people living in society.

My research group does a lot of work on disaster planning, emergency preparedness, and humanitarian operations with coverage of our most recent study being featured on in an article entitled, Team Designs Optimal Supply Chains for Disaster Relief.

With the number of disasters growing as well as the number of people affected by disasters, the question arises as to what role politics play in disasters when it comes to the survival of citizens after disasters strike.

In a fascinating article, Disaster Politics: Why Earthquakes Rock Democracies Less, published in Foreign Affairs, Alistair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores present documentation regarding earthquakes in different countries, the political structure in the countries, and the number of deaths attributed to recent disasters, and write:

In a democracy, leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population in order to stay in power. To do so, they need to protect the people from natural disasters by enforcing building codes and ensuring that bureaucracies are run by competent administrators. When politicians fail to deliver -- by, for example, letting too many die in disasters -- they lose their jobs. On average, 39 percent of democracies experience anti-government protests within any two-year period. The rate almost doubles after a major earthquake (defined as one that results in more than 200 casualties). And whereas 40 percent of democratic nations replace their leader in any two-year period, between 1976 and 2007, 91 percent of them did so following a major earthquake.

The article also highlights the difference in outcomes in countries post disasters: On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake -- approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti -- but only 500 people died. The difference in losses (both in terms of lives lost and infrastructure destruction, which in the case of Haiti propagates to this day) was attributed to several factors: the difference in the building codes in these two countries and the government response to the earthquakes. The difference is also in the preparation: Chile, Japan, and the United States have implemented policies that keep acts of nature from becoming massive human tragedies, while others have not (and some of the most notable ones of the latter have been non-democratic countries).

I recall when I was at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center on Lake Como, Italy, as organizer of the Humanitarian Logistics: Networks for Africa conference, which was "sandwiched" between (obviously, not planned) Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar (Burma) and the Sichuan Earthquake that hit China. There were several conferees in attendance who are well-known to the operations research community. While at Bellagio, we were told by Dr. Cosmas Zavazava of the International Telecommunications Union (whose UN-based organization also played an important role in restoring communications in Haiti after the earthquake) the difficulties that ITU had in getting its equipment to where it was needed in Myanmar because of the political situation (and he was in regular communication providing assistance while at the conference, which he deemed so important that he had to attend it).

George Fenton of the World Food Program, another invited conferee, managed to send us his presentation but was en route to Myanmar. The death toll following Cyclone Nargis was 138,000. As highlighted in Disaster Politics: Not only did the military regime do virtually nothing to help the communities worst affected it also blocked the arrival of international aid. The casualties were two orders of magnitude greater than those from Hurricane Katrina, but Myanmar’s military regime remains firmly entrenched.

We have a responsibility to educate and to inform citizens living under different political regimes that their governments must be prepared for disasters and must invest in resilient infrastructure to minimize the potential devastation. We have the knowledge to identify where to build (and how) so as to minimize risk; where to position necessary supplies in case of emergencies so that life-saving products can be delivered in a timely manner to population centers, and how to prioritize. We have the tools and techniques that can identify how organizations can team up during disasters in order to identify potential synergies so that lives are saved through cooperation rather than competition. Equally importantly, we must work to ensure that the actions of humans do not add to the potential devastation whether through climate change or inappropriate and inadequate resource allocation.