Disaster Capitalist vs. Disaster Preventionist

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Flying over Puerto Rico with the National Guard on a satellite connectivity project after Maria

It is purported that natural disasters cost the US, alone, $306 billion in 2017. There is no denying the fact that humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) is an industry. Few understand the full scope of this, or like to associate the word “business” with humanitarian operations, but whether an NGO, a Federal agency, or a contractor, disaster response is big time business.

The response ecosystem, as it stands today, is predominantly predicated on a reactionary recovery model where resources, infrastructure and funds are allocated to “response” efforts. The approach, in addition to being reactionary based instead of proactive, is also very top-down vs. bottom up. While the conversation, and focus is shifting to place more emphasis on proactive readiness and local capacity building, it will be years before bureaucracies, ingrained institutional culture and operating norms allows the HADR community to adapt, modernize and meet current demands effectively.

With the widely touted statistic that for every $1 spent on proactive emergency readiness measures $6 are saved on relief and recovery spend, it is clear that a new market opportunity is presenting itself. Disaster prevention and proactive readiness should pique the interest of the entire ecosystem. From insurance companies to local municipalities, small businesses, NGOs and entrepreneurs, making communities “ready” is now a quantifiable proposition.

There is no question that “disaster capitalism” is a reality that is often exploitative and inequitable in nature. But, it is not as black and white and or as linear as seminal authors in the space like Naomi Klein make it out to be in works including The Shock Doctrine and The Battle for Paradise.

It should be noted I am a fan of the author and her perspective. I use her work as an example because the recent title is relevant to Puerto Rico where we have been active for over eight months. Her thesis focuses on the exploitative nature of “disaster capitalists” in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on the island, but offers little insight into the underlying nuances inherent to Puerto Rico and the current situation. Her general accusation against the private sector, while well intentioned and accurate, in many ways, leaves large gaps and exemplifies some of the challenges and dangers of over simplifying a reality when trying to convey very complex subjects.

In disaster response, there are multiple angles, nuanced narratives, and truths, that must all be factored to realize a clear and accurate picture. It is hard, and often inaccurate to make anything, whether perceived to be right, wrong, positive or negative fit into a perfectly defined absolute box. While systems are broken and tremendous inefficiencies exist, there is no room for blame and accusation in humanitarian work, only positive action, constant improvement and creative solution oriented work.

Disaster capitalism exists because communities are vulnerable, traditional resource infrastructure and systems are failing, and large vacuums of need, not able to be filled by government or conventional resources, present in large-scale disasters. As in any other “market” environment where there is a need service providers materialize, and this is where the negative aspects of disaster capitalism commence.

What if we, as a collective HADR and business community were to change the playbook? What if we were to understand the shortcomings of conventional systems and instead of blaming were to celebrate them as current realities and work with the various resource communities for the good that they bring? What if we shifted focus from reactionary top down approaches to response and recovery to proactive whole community emergency readiness efforts? What if we shifted the market opportunity from disaster capitalism in the aftermath of a storm to “disaster Preventionism”? There is money to be made, tax dollars saved, lives to be protected and detrimental economic impact to stave off — it’s a win win on all fronts.

To accomplish this, a good starting point would be focusing on identifying, supporting and amplifying local capacity proactively to position providers in local vulnerable areas to be ready, outfitted and trained to serve in times of emergency. In this way, local market operators could become the service providers in times of need and could become the economic beneficiaries of recovery spend, staving off the dynamic of opening impaired areas to outside, exploitive and predatory services and operators by negating the need.

If major resources were put behind local projects and actors like The Foundation for Puerto Rico, proyecto mutuo apoyo mariana puerto rico, or the work of people like Manolo Lopez in the aftermath of Maria in Puerto Rico, things would have gone differently. But the mechanisms and systems are not yet in place with larger resource communities to enable them to rapidly identify and support these types of informal, organic community centric efforts.

This is not at all to imply outside services, subject matter expertise and resources are not imperative and needed, especially in the acute response stage of large-scale disasters to assist local populations, government and municipalities. This is also not to imply that all contractors, services or large international or non-impact region specific NGOs operating in response are predatory, in fact it’s the opposite. But the questions in regard to the current dynamic need to be posed: Does it make sense for the majority of recovery dollars and spend, despite funding origin to go to service providers, NGO’s and contractors from outside the impaired area? How does that help to re-invigorate and establish economic stability in a ravaged environment? How does that change the dynamic in an impaired region that will undoubtedly face more occurrences from one of dependence on these types of services to a state of proactive readiness and self-sufficiency?

The notion of giving and donating in time of a disaster is an intrinsic instinct. But society needs to come to realize that sometimes sending tons of external supplies and manpower from outside an impacted area often does anything but help recovery. When you give things for free, in a non-strategic manner, despite great intention, dependency is created and local capacity is undercut. This hampers and slows overall economic recovery. It has been our organization’s experience that the most viable, well equipped and sustainable responders are local businesses, entrepreneurs, and small local NGOs and Foundations. These are also often the groups conventional aid is not designed to support and that find themselves in competition with better funded outside resources.

The new “disaster capitalists” should be local businesses and NGO’s in vulnerable areas. If local companies, organizations, foundations and entrepreneurs focused on readying themselves to be capable of providing continuity of service despite severity of impact, they would inherently become their own response infrastructure. If prevention of disruption of service and continuity of operations can be achieved than these organization stand to directly benefit financially in the aftermath of a disaster. That is not a bad thing when you consider the implications of having existing local businesses and organizations able to provide the emergency services needed and forgoing the need to ramp up such significant and costly large scale relief efforts that would see other external organizations reap the financial benefits.

Simply by ensuring an ability to deliver existing services to the customer community despite impact to traditional infrastructure, local businesses could remove the need gaps that afford predatory external “disaster capitalist” opportunities. By reducing dependence on external relief, be it from government, larger foreign NGOs etc. and proactive efforts to put redundant and hardened systems in place ahead of disasters would change the HADAR ecosystem. This approach is new, and requires a real cultural shift from one of dependence to proactive preparedness, but the outcomes should outweigh the challenges inherent to making any such societal and business culture shift. The funding for this would require that current funding sources from Federal to NGO reimagine how dollars are allocated.

Shifting of buzzword terminology from “resiliency” to “readiness”

Resiliency has been the buzzword in the HADR community for years. From the Rockefeller 100 resilient cities initiative to many of the major actors in the space, “community “resiliency” has been the goal. However, little work, resources or tactical, tangible action has been directed to actual cultivation of proactive whole community readiness. Its hard to be “resilient” if your not “ready.” We have always viewed resiliency as an end state that could only be achieved through proactive readiness measures. Communities that don’t prepare are inherently not resilient, and it is the vast majority of communities today that are still in a very vulnerable dependent state that rely on external resources in the aftermath of occurrences.

We are excited to see efforts in Puerto Rico shifting to proactive readiness. While small local actors are the ones making the biggest moves, the rhetoric from institutions like FEMA as evidenced by their 2018 Strategic plan is shifting to be more proactive in nature. When conventional and institutional resources establish the mechanisms to operate dynamically to identify true local operators and to put real resources behind them, the outcome of severe storm impacts will be greatly different than what we experience today. Here is to the shift from reactionary and dependent to proactive and ready!

This is a heavily nuanced topic and no black and white statements were meant to be made here. Every disaster, from Haiti to the Philippines and Puerto Rico to Texas is different and requires a different kind of response, resources and approach. The only objective here is to stress the power of local capacity and the importance to support it in conducting response and relief operations.

Photo Credit: Mike Atwood

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Meshing Special Operations veteran disaster response and entrepreneurial communities to create ventures and to solve challenges in disasters.

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