Friday, September 02, 2005

Man-Made Natural Disasters?

A few months back, NYC Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy held a roundtable discussion on how foundations can make grants in response to disasters with a social justice lens. The event was timely then, due to the tsunami that struck Asia. It was a fascinating conversation, featuring senior and emerging leaders from the Red Cross, CitiGroup Foundation, the Foundation Center, Give to Asia, and related groups.

One of the more remarkable comments that lodged in my memory, which came from one of the mentors in the NYC EPIP Mentoring Program, went something like this:

"Every natural disaster is a man-made disaster."

It is the human decisions and policies (regarding thing like zoning and real estate, water use, public transportation, poverty, infrastructure investment) that determine the human costs of naturally-created events.

In the case of the tsunami, decisions about where to build (and re-build) villages and homes -- where poor people could afford to build (i.e. in known dangerous areas), where wealthier people would never build, where government allow developers to build -- then has a tremendous impact on who was killed, made homeless, etc. When foundations and other donors attempted to respond, those thinking about how to avoid a repetition of the disaster had to consider what equitable rebuilding would mean.

As part of my previous job, I worked on a grantmaking program that supported community organizations in a number of states in the South. Through this work, I had the opportunity to travel to Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere in the region. I heard stories first hand from community leaders that flatly laid out the economic and racial disparity, and the reactionary politics and policies, that are very much alive today in the South.

Clearly the social aftershocks of Katrina have been this bad in large part due to the under-development, entrenched poverty, and continuous institutionalized racial segration. Many of the human effects of this natural disaster were likely man-made.

Of course, this does not just apply to the South. The line of cars clogging the highways to get out of town before the storm were evidence of the generally severe individualism of this society. Who would have thought of getting buses or trains or caravans or carpools to help people without cars or other resources out of town? But if cities and regions invested in regional rail or other forms of public transportation, more people probably would be able to get out of such situations in timely, affordable ways.

So while the natural disaster calls for recovery and rebuilding, the man-made disaster calls for rethinking our society's investments in urban and rural areas, and the new ways in which we need to address poverty and disenfranchisement.

A Sept 1 column, The Storm After The Storm, by David Brooks column in The New York Times more eloquently describes how "(f)loods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities." I would encourage readers to post comments with your own thoughts on these matters, and invite any EPIP members in the Mid-South or the South at large to add comments.


Claire Acher, The Foundation Center said...

Very well-expressed and thought-provoking blog entry, Rusty. Thanks. This definitely merits discussion and consideration about what we can do within the philanthropic community to address the socioeconomic underpinnings of natural disasters.

Rusty Stahl said...

Thanks Claire. It was fascinating to hear Pres. Bush mention racial equity issues in the rebuilding of the Gulf region. For more on race and philanthropy, see my latest post.