Harvard Public Health NOW

February 1, 2008

Twelve Myths and Misconceptions in Disaster Response

Michael VanRooyen

Michael VanRooyen

People involved in providing emergency humanitarian assistance may sometimes cause more harm than good - delivering items that are unneeded and inappropriate, providing services that undermine the local economy, and working without coordination with local organizations, according to Michael VanRooyen, co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and associate professor in the HSPH Department of Population and International Health.

Providers of humanitarian relief often make incorrect assumptions about the vulnerabilities of disaster victims and how they may behave in an emergency, VanRooyen said during a December 17 lecture in Snyder Auditorium as part of the 2007-2008 Public Health Preparedness Speaker Series sponsored by the Center for Public Health Preparedness.

"We propagate [many incorrect] public perceptions by sending inappropriate services, clothing, and food," he said. Responders need to take a clearer and more self-critical look at the aid provided and be willing to challenge the humanitarian aid "industry" and to find better ways to serve people, he added.

Twelve Myths and Misconceptions in Disaster Response

  • Disasters are random killers.
  • The primary victims of war are combatants and warring parties.
  • Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed.
  • Disasters bring out the worst in human behavior.
  • The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for its own survival.
  • Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster, and dead bodies create disease.
  • Food, aid, and clothing are always needed by victims of a disaster.
  • Locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is the best alternative.
  • Media attention is usually focused on the most severe emergencies.
  • Large-scale relief efforts are the best way to control humanitarian crises.
  • Things are back to normal within a few weeks.
  • International aid is distributed based on the most acute need.

The title of VanRooyen's talk was "Humanitarian Myths: Twelve Myths and Misconceptions in Disaster Response." See page 3 for a listing of the myths.

VanRooyen stressed that disasters take the greatest toll on the most vulnerable, the poor, elderly, sick, and others who are unable to escape. This is true in natural disasters as well as in wartime, where civilians die at a much higher rate than combatants, usually because the fighting causes refugee movements and destroys health care services and access to food, he noted.

While the public perception is that disasters bring out the worst in people, the opposite is usually true, he said. "Looting is the exception, not the rule," said VanRooyen. "People usually reach out to help their neighbors"

And while many believe that local people are helpless, the truth is that local people usually are the real heroes, doing most of the rescue work long before foreign aid workers arrive on the scene, he said.

VanRooyen was especially critical of efforts to send clothing, food shipments, and medical equipment to disaster-hit areas. Most clothing, for example, is often inappropriate, unneeded, and may end up being sold in the marketplace, reducing demand for locally produced clothing, forcing factories to close, and putting people out of work. "Giving things that are not asked for is a big problem," he said.

The media focus on dramatic disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami, but ignore longstanding ones, such as the ongoing civil war in the Congo, which has taken more than five million lives, he said. And the media attention in big disasters can drive the humanitarian response, he noted.

VanRooyen said the humanitarian aid industry must improve through self-analysis. "I remain idealistic," he said. Humanitarian aid is an essential part of emergency relief, but provision of it needs to improve.

The way to do that, he said, is to "professionalize the humanitarian effort" by better assessing the needs of disaster-stricken areas, involving the local populations in decision making, offering assistance in a culturally appropriate manner, coordinating efforts among relief agencies, and transitioning rapidly into long-term relief programs.

"We've got to take lessons learned and apply them,' he said. "We have to take a clear, careful, and self-critical look at the aid we provide and find better [and more efficient] ways to serve people [affected by war and disaster.]"

—Michael Lasalandra. Photo by Suzanne Camarata.