14 comments on “A Numbers Game

  1. Pingback: Some Food for Thought on Haiti « A Nourishing Home

  2. Pingback: A Humourless Lot» Complicating a numbers game: SAR, emergency preparedness, and how we should spend our resources – Logistics for global health and aid: A Humourless Lot

  3. A few thoughts on this.

    First, I’d guess that not all of the people in need of S&R after an earthquake are equally easy to find and rescue. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the people who are quickly rescued are probably also those who are more easily rescued, particularly since, when thousands of rescues are taking place, most of those rescues will be done by inexperienced amateurs, people digging out their friends, family and neighbors. So at the 48 hour mark, when the foreign S&R teams are coming in, the rescues left to be done will be those that are more technically difficult.

    Second, there are certainly local expert S&R teams. They will be focusing on the more difficult rescues from the beginning, ideally called in when local ad-hoc S&R groups find a situation they can’t handle. But, being local to the disaster, they will be somewhat hampered in their actions. Some of the trained S&R people will be among the trapped, needing rescue rather than rescuing. Some or much of their equipment will be damaged by the disaster. The supplies they have will probably also be inadequate in quantity – not even the richest city in the world has enough rescue equipment to address S&R when a major city is devastated. And the supplies that they have will also be used up. They local S&R teams will also have their own concerns, about their own friends and family, which they are likely pushing aside as they deal with the immediate crisis.

    Finally, by the time the first 48 hours are up, and foreign S&R teams can arrive, the local S&R teams are probably exhausted They will have been working day and night in those 48 hours. The work they’ve been doing will have been physically grueling. They may be weakened by hunger and thirst, suffering the same deprivations as the local civilians.

    Hunger, thirst and exhaustion all weaken human judgment. So by the end of the first 48 hours, the local teams will be facing the most difficult and complected rescues, with depleted supplies, bodies pushed to their limit, and brains clouded with fatigue.

    The point is not that people local to a disaster haven’t been rescuing people, but that they have, over and over. Two days, nonstop.

    At the 48 hour mark, my guess is that the local professional S&R teams will be pushing the limits of their effectiveness, and need to rest, while the people still trapped will be reaching the end of their endurance, and can’t be left to wait while the local teams take a nap.

    The foreign rescue teams are a gap-filler, between the limits of the local rescue teams and the point where rescue alive is no longer possible.

    There is also an emotional necessity to bringing in more S&R, even when other types of aide are desperately needed. How well could other aide workers function, if they knew that people were trapped, local rescuers exhausted to collapse, and no one is left to do the last of the “digging out”? For both local and foreign aide workers, the decision to leave trapped people to die so that the effort can be made to help in other ways would be a difficult one. Knowing that the S&R is continuing eliminates that distraction.

    • Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful reply Ursula. I won’t respond to the entire message as I believe that for the most part you present a very valid argument, although I would still suggest that the value-add for this sort of investment versus the theoretical opportunity cost of inserting, for example, medical teams, needs further quantification. However your last paragraph is extremely convincing, and I agree- the thought of people trying to move on with other activities while ostensibly ‘ignoring’ people they know to be still trapped alive beneath buildings and left to die is a very relevant and important one. Thanks for adding your insight.

      • Thank you! I was pretty much speculating on the limits of local S&R, so I’m glad I wasn’t completely off-base.

        I guess my point is that what needs to be measured is not merely the number of lives saved by local versus foreign S&R efforts, but rather the limits of local S&R, the window for saving lives by S&R, and the ways in which any gap can be addressed.

        The relief work being done by foreign S&R teams is threefold, one is S&R for the people they rescue, the second is relief for the local S&R teams, while the third is to be a resource that helps keep people there to do other sorts of relief work from being diverted to S&R.

        The calculation you discuss needs to be made, but I figure that all three types of relief provided by foreign S&R needs to go into the calculation.

    • I wonder for how many other disease or development related projects this is also the case? I can focus on hunger, comforted that someone else is handling malaria, who is in turn comforted by knowing I’m trying to get them fed. Is this a positive externality? Are different interventions complementary? Would you dare propose a study that could experimentally demonstrate it?

      • Good observation. It’s absolutely true across the development board- different sectors compliment each other and by hitting multiple sectors to produce the same aims (either yourself or by working with other partner organizations) you can increase the effectiveness of your own project- or vice versa, achieve nothing. Child survival (linked to your comment about) is an excellent example. When I was working in Niger during the 2005-6 ‘famine’ (actually and under-5 nutrition crisis), child survival rates were horrible. We began doing food distributions and targeted child-focused nutrition projects. In fact the array of contributing factors, all of which needed doing, included: Food shortages (combination of poor rains, locusts, aggressive market traders, and household power dynamics), lack of quality nutritious food (combination of growing practices and education), poor public health access (poor state infrastructure & investment in rural areas), poor disease control (malaria, diarrhoeal diseases- linked to both public health and water/sanitation resources and practices) and poor child-care practices (combination of maternal education and cultural norms). Missing any one of these factors meant that the impact of any one intervention was going to be diminished, and only focussing on one without making sure that you or a partner was focusing on another meant that your program would have been pretty much in vain.

        HIV/AIDS and the interplay between medical support, clean water/hygeine and nutritious food to contribute to survival rates is another good example.

        Thanks for your observation.


  4. Pingback: Haiti Earthquake Issues- A Reader « WanderLust

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  6. Pingback: Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Posts and articles written by aid workers related to the Haiti relief efforts

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