Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Smoke and mirrors: deficiencies in disaster funding

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 27 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:247
  1. Peter Walker (, director1,
  2. Ben Wisner, research fellow2,
  3. Jennifer Leaning, professor of international health3,
  4. Larry Minear, director, humanitarianism and war project1
  1. 1 Feinstein International Famine Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Medford MA 02155, USA
  2. 2 Crisis States Programme, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE
  3. 3 Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02215, USA
  1. Correspondence to: P Walker
  • Accepted 12 January 2005

Disasters such as the recent tsunami, which derail development can no longer be viewed as short term blips from which society readily recovers


The headline concern for the tsunami victims, living and dead, will be with us for a few weeks; by contrast, their need for assistance and reform will stretch over decades. Huge sums have been pledged in aid and a bold commitment made to build an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. But, if past is precedent, only a fraction of recent pledges will materialise and the already overdue warning system will remain a pipe dream for the affected communities. The headlines rightly applaud the compassionate outpouring of the public around the world but fail to question the logic of promoting one-off giving from individuals rather than sustained involvement by governments. Disasters are part of normality, and if we are to have a longlasting effect we need to rethink the way aid is delivered and invest in development to help minimise the effects of natural phenomena.

Record on delivering aid

The pledging of $5bn (£2.6bn, €3.8bn) for survivors of the tsunami only three weeks after the event, is an impressive expression of global concern. The track record of delivering on such commitments, however, is anything but reassuring (table 1). Pledges fail to materialise for a host of reasons, some rational but some indefensible. Countries affected by disaster may have difficulty in absorbing huge aid flows quickly. Disasters destroy the infrastructure vital to delivering aid. Many of the civil servants, technicians, and local leaders who would normally carry out rehabilitation work may be killed in the disaster, as they were in the Rwandan genocide and the tsunami.

View this table:
Table 1

Disparity between pledging and delivery of aid after disasters

Donors may attach conditions that make contributions difficult to use. These conditions may reflect a policy agenda (such …

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