Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:44 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:44 | SYDNEY

Sumatra earthquake: Get cash in fast

1 October 2009 13:40

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.

Early reports suggest that perhaps a thousand people or more have died in the earthquake which has struck the West Sumatra provincial capital Padang (population: around 900,000). Reports are still sketchy and the death toll could be considerably higher. There is news that some thousands of people have been trapped in buildings that have collapsed in Padang.

It is now widely recognised that much more needs to be done in poor countries to strengthen local preparedness. Much can be done at the local level to identify potential threats (it was well known, for example, that earthquakes and associated tsunamis posed a high risk to the city of Padang) and to prepare to respond when disasters strike. 

These lessons, of course, were widely discussed in Asia following the terrible 2004 tsunami. Doubtless, within a week or so, the question will arise in Indonesia of whether national and regional governments did enough to prepare for a natural disaster in Padang. President Yudhoyono might have some explaining to do, just as President Arroyo of the Philippines has been trying to explain herself this last week following the massive flooding in Manila.

But it is post-disaster responses that are now relevant in West Sumatra. A huge number of reports were issued following the 2004 Asian tsunami so it would be good to draw on some of the lessons learnt from that experience. An excellent annotated listing of over 600 documents discussing all aspects of the Asian tsunami has recently been prepared with the support of the Swedish aid agency SIDA.

We will get more reports in the next day or so about local needs. Big decisions as to how best to respond must wait until more information is available. But it is not too early to note two key lessons from the both the 2004 Asian tsunami aid effort and the experiences learnt in Yogyakarta in 2006.

First, get aid in fast! 

The leisurely responses typical of too many assistance agencies are entirely unsatisfactory. A typical timeline for many large international donors would be to wait, first, for a needs survey to be conducted by the UN or the World Bank (a minimum of six weeks) and then get together for a high-level international donors conference in Paris or Geneva (another four weeks) to consider what to do. Allowing for another four weeks (minimum) before post-conference aid activities begin to flow, this means a minimum response time of around three months. You wouldn't want to be bleeding to death waiting for these people to turn up.

Second, provide reasonable amounts of aid as cash. 

The traditional approach of many aid agencies is to provide aid in-kind (food, clothes, tents, medicines). Certainly, aid in-kind is often useful. However, one of the lessons learnt from recent disasters is that the provision of cash is often just as helpful and can be provided much faster. The regional economy of West Sumatra around Padang is well developed. Many goods urgently needed are available from nearby. If survivors of the Padang earthquake disaster are promptly provided with cash assistance, they will be able to buy many of the things they need. 

This is often far better than having to queue up for hours waiting for officials to decide whether you are allowed to have five kilograms of rice or not. There are pros and cons to the provision of cash-based assistance, of course, which are discussed in reports listed in the SIDA bibliography as well as in an excellent survey by Paul Harvey issued by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute.

Photo by Flickr user bepatou, used under a Creative Commons license.