One week ago today, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippine Islands at Guiuan. Packing winds of greater than 190 mph, the storm was the strongest typhoon to make landfall. Whole towns were leveled, trees flattened, and families displaced. Now, those residents must prepare for the next storm, an onslaught of aid and donations to provide relief and help them rebuild.
We’ve seen this before, most recently in Haiti after the destructive earthquake of 2010. Aid money and western aid workers flowed into the country at an unprecedented pace. Attempts to provide long term help and reconstruction suffered as the amount of capital outstripped the ability of local human capital to wisely direct that aid in ways that benefited Haitians over the long term. Even the most well-meaning and competent organizations have struggled to make investments that bettered the lot of Haitians, not just immediately, but well into the future.
Providing food, water, and short term shelter are all worthy goals; however, aid providers often feel it’s their responsibility to make sure those they assist get fed, clothed, and sheltered. This is particularly true in rebuilding houses, churches, schools, and other structures. Well-meaning “field trips” drop in to a community and rebuild structures for people. They build houses or schools and present them to people as gifts and testaments of their generosity.
Relief work, when done poorly, fills people’s stomachs but empties their stocks of self-reliance. The mindset of self-reliance comes from three beliefs and attitudes: the moral responsibility individuals feel to provide for their own well-being, the self-efficacy to do the things required to enhance well-being, and a long term view that directs and sequences action in ways that improve a person’s long term status.
What aid providers fail to do is include the recipients in meaningful roles, other than as passive acceptors of the givers’ benevolence. The afflicted aren’t asked to help—and consequently take responsibility for—their own structures. They fail to learn many new skills that would help build a house as well as a career, such as carpentry, plumbing, or project management. Little thought is given to the long-term ramifications of all the short term donor largesse.
How can we avoid the same mistakes this time around? By making sure that programs and interventions focus aid and efforts on building self-reliance. Then, and only then, can we harness the devastation of Haiyan and turn it into real developmental energy for the impoverished citizens of that beautiful region.
For more information on self-reliance and how it works as an economic and a social concept check out this quick video:
Paul C. Godfrey is Professor of Strategy and Associate Academic Director of the Melvin J. Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management, where he helps students and practitioners translate organization and economic theory into action that reduces poverty. He has recently pursued projects in Ghana, the Navajo Nation, and with disadvantaged populations in the United States.
His new book More than Money is a timely guide on how organizations can create prosperity for people at the base of the pyramid in the developing and developed world.