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.
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.