natural disaster law

Haiti, Hurricanes and Holes in Disaster Law

Amy Johns, MJLST Staffer

The state of national disaster relief is one that depends greatly on the country and that country’s funds. Ryan S. Keller’s article, “Keeping Disaster Human: Empathy, Systematization, and the Law,” argues that proposed legal changes to the natural disaster laws (both national and international) could have negative consequences for the donative funding of disaster relief. In essence, he describes a potential trade–off: do we want to risk losing the money that makes disaster relief possible, for the sake of more effectively designating and defining disasters? These calculations are particularly critical for countries that rely heavily on foreign aid to recover after national disasters.

In light of recent tragedies, I would point to a related difficulty: what happens when the money is provided, but because of a lack of accountability or governing laws, the funds never actually make it to their intended purposes? Drumming up financial support is all well and good, but what if the impact is never made because there are no legal and institutional supports in place?

Keller brings up a common reason to improve disaster relief law: “efforts to better systematize disaster may also better coordinate communication procedures and guidelines.” There is a fundamental difficulty in disaster work when organizations don’t know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. A prime example of the lack of communication and guidelines has been seen in Haiti, in which disaster relief efforts are largely dependent on foreign aid. The fallout from Hurricane Matthew has resurrected critiques of the 2010 earthquake response—most prominent was the claim of the Red Cross to build 130,000 homes, when in fact it only built six. Though the Red Cross has since disputed these claims, this fiasco pointed to an extreme example of NGOs’ lack of accountability to donors. Even when such efforts go as planned and are successful, the concern among many is that such efforts build short—term solutions without helping to restructure institutions that will last beyond the presence of these organizations.

Could legal regulations fix problems of accountability in disaster relief? If so, the need for those considerations is imminent: climate change means that similar disasters are likely to occur with greater frequency, so the need for effective long-term solutions will only become more pressing.