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
Late last month, Beijing introduced changes to school curricula in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, requiring certain subjects to be taught in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. What is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeking to gain from sending this message of pernicious intent? It is possible that he is attempting cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia, but does Xi also have the same plan for the democratic, independent nation of Mongolia? The controversy emerged with the announcement by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau on Aug. 26 that first-grade elementary-school and junior-high students would in certain subjects start learning with Chinese-language textbooks, as
There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world. China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland. The situation has been
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
On Sept. 8, at the high-profile Ketagalan security forum, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) urged countries to deal with the China challenge. She said: “It is time for like-minded countries, and democratic friends in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, to discuss a framework to generate sustained and concerted efforts to maintain a strategic order that deters unilateral aggressive actions.” The “Taiwan model” to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic provides an alternative to China’s authoritarian way of handling it. Taiwan’s response to the health crisis has made it evident that countries across the world have much to learn from Taiwan’s best practices and if