The earth produces a reliable stream of disasters. Some, like AIDS, are chronic; others, like earthquakes or Hurricane Katrina, are sudden displays of natural force. In each case, it is expected that a well-financed relief effort will descend from a wealthier region. But importing assistance may not only be less effective, it might actually cause more damage in the long run.
When a tsunami hits, the first impulse is to bring in First-World experts. Rescue is the initial priority, followed by ensuring food, shelter, and medical aid. It is just a matter of getting things done, and it must be done the most effective way, so the operations occur according to the institutional philosophies of donor countries.
But siphoning the habits of one culture into another during a rebuilding process can trigger societal changes that are almost as damaging as the disaster itself, as happened in small fishing villages in the Philippines in the late 1970s.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
In 1978, Typhoon Rita wiped out the fleet of handmade wooden fishing boats in a group of sea-dependant Philippine communities. Relief was fast and effective, consisting first of subsistence aid, followed by "restoration" of the fishing fleet. The old boats, which rotted every few years, were replaced by modern fiberglass versions with small gasoline engines. At the time, this was touted as a textbook case of doing things right.
The fishing economy rebounded and flourished -- but only for about ten years. After that, the entire society collapsed. Over thousands of years, the culture had come to depend on the central role of boat builders. They were the anchor of society, acting in effect as priests, teachers, and judges. Subsistence flowed according to their goodwill and was supported by conventions of sharing and trust.
After the relief effort, this complex human balance was replaced by a cash economy, and the power brokers became those who could dole out the rare, precious petrol. An entire culture was effectively destroyed by efficient relief.
This scenario has been repeated over and over in diverse contexts. The first impulse is to solve problems in the most established manner. But, lacking sensitivity to local dynamics, the outcome is severely compromised.
The solution seems simple: create and subsidize small science centers in regions at risk of disaster. The primary objective of these centers would be "normal" science, with missions and profiles that feed from their local context. At-risk regions would develop culturally appropriate ways to deal with the catastrophes most likely to affect them. In addition, local talent would be nurtured in its home context.
This philosophy would benefit places like New Orleans as much as Phuket in Thailand. Indeed, while it might seem as though there would be no problem of cultural transposition in the case of Hurricane Katrina, an examination of the tragedy reveals otherwise.
It has been overwhelmingly observed that the worst-hit people in New Orleans were poor black Americans living in the city's low-lying districts. To be sure, many of these inner-city residents simply lacked the resources to evacuate easily. But it is beginning to emerge that many also preferred to stay in a social environment that they trusted rather than fleeing to safer, but foreign, surroundings.
Critics also cite the diversion of infrastructure funds and Louisiana National Guard troops to Iraq as contributing to the emergency. These factors clearly played a role, but, overall, if a body of scientifically inclined people from the inner city had been involved in flood control and evacuation planning, the consequences of Hurricane Katrina would certainly have been managed more effectively. By contrast, the inappropriateness of transplanting troops from Iraq into a rescue operation is obvious.
The fight against AIDS -- a battle that depends heavily on social modification -- highlights in perhaps the clearest way the problems that always occur when local culture is ignored. Societal mechanisms simply cannot be adjusted without a crisp, practiced understanding of a culture. And this cannot be merely intuitive. It must be scientific, that is, based on the best methods and models.
For this reason, there should be two points of contact during a catastrophe. Groups of critical thinkers -- the "experts" -- should be on hand to advise on how to avoid second-order disasters. Even though many of them might not have studied the local culture, they can nonetheless provide guidance that has been informed by the world's most expensive infrastructure. At the same time, relief efforts should be managed by a local science center that is known and trusted by those in danger.
The implications of this approach extend far beyond disaster relief. A robust scientific establishment is the root of any economy, and there will be no real development in underdeveloped countries without it. An investment in local science is therefore a direct infusion into a community's growth potential, one that eventually will reward investors with new breakthroughs. After all, nothing is better for innovation than a scientist working outside conventional institutions, solving a problem that will save his or her family.
H. T. Goranson is the lead scientist of Sirius-Beta Corp and was a senior scientist with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Copyright: Project Syndicate
South China Sea exercises in July by two United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers reminds that Taiwan’s history since mid-1950, and as a free nation, is intertwined with that of the aircraft carrier. Eventually Taiwan will host aircraft carriers, either those built under its democratic government or those imposed on its territory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). By September 1944, a lack of sufficient carrier airpower and land-based airpower persuaded US Army and Navy leaders to forgo an invasion to wrest Taiwan from Japanese control, thereby sparing Taiwanese considerable wartime destruction. But two
This year, India and Taiwan can look back on 25 years of so-called unofficial ties. This provides an occasion to ponder over how they can deepen collaboration and strengthen their relations. This reflection must be free from excitement and agitation caused by the ongoing China-US great power jostling as well as China’s aggressive actions against many of its neighbors, including India. It must be based on long-term trends in bilateral engagement. To begin with, India and Taiwan, thus far, have had relations constituted by various activities, but what needs to be thought about now is whether they can transform their ties
As Taiwan is engulfed in worries about Chinese infiltration, news reports have revealed that power inverters made by China’s Huawei Technologies Co are used in the solar panels on the top of the Legislative Yuan’s Zhenjiang House (鎮江會館) on Zhenjiang Street in Taipei. However, what is even more worrying is that Taiwan’s new national electronic identification card (eID) has been subcontracted to the French security firm and eID maker Idemia, which has not only cooperated with the Chinese Public Security Bureau to manufacture eIDs in China, but also makes the new identification cards being issued in Hong Kong. There might be more
All lives eventually come to an end. Over the years, my friendship with former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) had its ups and downs. Lee’s passing was a heavy blow and has left me deeply saddened. We experienced a lot together and the memories have come flooding back. Lee was born several months earlier than me. During World War II, he was studying at Kyoto Imperial University, but halfway through his studies, he was forced to change his name and enter military service. I was studying at Tokyo Imperial University, but went into hiding to avoid military service, and I was later