Disaster Relief in Developing Countries: What Are We Doing Wrong?

(Photo credit to worldvision.org)

On Sep. 28th of 2018, a 7.5 level earthquake in Palu, Indonesia was followed by a tsunami and an then a volcanic eruption – the death count was over 2,100 people. On Sep. 30th, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia began accepting international and private sector aid from Australia, South Korea, the EU, the Philippines and the U.S. Despite these efforts, there was a myriad of heated complaints regarding negligence and inefficiency on the part of the Indonesian government both in preparation and in the aftermath of the tragic disasters.

To prevent large damages in face of natural disasters, the government needs to be able to monitor and predict natural disasters and issue punctual evacuations. According to the Jakarta Post, Palu is a region that has historically been proven as very prone to natural disasters. However, on the eve of the earthquake, there were no warnings issued from local officials . Five minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami was detected, and yet there were no warnings directed at the Palu residents. According to the New York Times, as early as in 2012, Indonesian scientists warned the country of the specific areas in Palu that were likely to have liquefaction (where the soil and land turn into liquid) – yet the government neglected to warn contractors and  residents in the region. Due to the need for urbanization and development, the local government withheld potentially life-threatening information from their people (“Nature Cursed Indonesia, but It Took Neglect to Make a Disaster.”) In addition, the government failed to fairly distribute aid throughout the area, with most resources going to Palu and not enough going to the surrounding areas affected by the tsunami and the volcano eruption due to a wrong estimation of the spread of the disaster. Residents from surrounding regions were forced to go onto streets to actively seek donations from random motorcycles driving past.

According to an UN report, “Poverty & Death: Disaster Morality 1996-2015,” 90% of the deaths from natural disasters in the world occur in middle-to-low-income countries. Haiti, Indonesia, and Myanmar are the three countries on the top of the list of most deaths from natural disasters.


These countries are not resourceful nor proactive enough to fully invest in measures to prevent and protect their citizens from natural disasters despite the bountiful lessons from history. Many the houses in hard-hit areas of developing countries were never built to withstand earthquake pressures, and many civilians are not educated enough on life-saving skills in extreme situations. Setting standards such as “warning systems, sturdier infrastructure, tougher building codes, smarter urban planning, and wider social safety nets” is a great place to start (World Bank). In addition, purchasing insurance policies against natural disasters would minimize damage done to the local economy.

However, the steps of securing a safer future for developing countries do not stop at their own efforts. The international community ought to alter the manner in which they give aid in order to foster a more sustainable and effective way of assistance.

According to an article from The Guardian, “Rebuilding a country: from disaster relief to sustainable development” by Anyangwe, there is a sense of competition between agencies in disaster relief where they fight over the same resources, which largely decreases the efficiency of the whole process. In addition, in terms of long-term building and investing in a country stricken by natural disaster, it is crucial to ensure that the country aided is central to the decision process of its own development. For example, only 34% of the aid for Haiti’s 2010 earthquake went to the government, even though the government was the one responsible for long-term recovery and investment, not the private sectors or NGOs. There is still a lot of room for improvement in truly helping developing countries in face of the plights of nature.

How can we help?

One immediate way is to give to credible organizations such as the Indonesia disaster relief (link below). There is never going to be “enough” help towards a cause as such, especially since Palu has been triple hit by disasters within a short day. In addition, one long-term goal is for more students studying public policy and international affairs to focus more on the international aid related issues in addition to domestic politics, so that our policy makers in the future would be able to better utilize limited resources sustainably and efficiently in helping the ones in need.

Link to give to Indonesia disaster relief: https://donate.worldvision.org/give/indonesia-earthquake