Humanitarian workers on the ground analyze who needs what relief and draw up plans. The government asks for help. The United Nations coordinates international pledges. Relief comes in - money, bags of grain, medical supplies.
But by that point, weeks or months have gone by.
Rarely is there pre-planning, pre-fundraising, or pre-agreement on a plan. “This is medieval,” said Stefan Dercon, a professor of economic policy at Oxford and a former chief economist of Britain’s bilateral aid agency, the Department for International Development.
He and Daniel Clarke, head of the London-based Center for Disaster Protection, wrote the book “Dull Disasters? How Planning Ahead Will Make a Difference.”
“It is as if financial instruments such as insurance do not exist,” they wrote. “This is begging-bowl financing at its worst.”
But here’s what can happen instead - what, in fact, did happen in the Kurigram district of northwest Bangladesh in July. With colossal rains predicted, the United Nations World Food Program and the Bangladesh government identified about 5,000 particularly vulnerable families. Three days before the flood hit, they used mobile phone banking to send each family the equivalent of $53. With that money, the families secured their houses and belongings - for example, buying materials to lift their furniture off the ground. And they could pay the costs of taking their livestock and fleeing.
Instead of getting relief after they were wiped out by the flood, the residents were able to avoid much of the loss - for $10 per person.
The accomplishment in Bangladesh is one of a handful of examples worldwide of anticipating disaster.
But it doesn’t have to be the rare exception. If disasters take us by surprise, it’s because we weren’t looking. With satellite data and mathematical modeling, we can now know about a flood or drought days or even weeks in advance.
“We’ve improved so much in getting the precise likelihood of this particular area being flooded, and the number of people affected. We probably couldn’t have done this 10 years ago,” Dr. Dercon said of the Bangladesh case.
We can’t predict the first case of a new outbreak of Ebola, but we can know where that deadly disease recurs and use that first case to predict later ones. Using satellite data, scientists can anticipate cholera outbreaks days, even weeks, in advance. When violent conflict breaks out or terrible drought sets in, we can plot the mass movement of refugees.
An early response can prevent suffering. With famine expected in Somalia in 2017, for example, U.N. and other aid agencies sent 600,000 families vouchers by text message redeemable in local markets. (All hail mobile phone banking!) The vouchers fed families and the local economy, and famine was averted.
A Guest Editorial