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People & Perspective

Is Lack of Accountability the Next Natural Disaster?

As director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Thomas D. Kirsch, MD, MPH ’86, knows a thing or two about relief efforts. 

In a May 1, 2015 OpEd in The Washington Post, Kirsch speaks out against waste, corruption and the lack of accountability among international organizations involved in disaster relief and calls for an international effort to gather more data to accurately measure the impact of relief campaigns in affected countries. 

“It hasn’t even been a week since Nepal’s massive earthquake killed thousands and destroyed businesses, homes, roads and hospitals across the country,” he writes. “But already, the United Nations has called for $415 million in aid; more than $50 million has been pledged by 53 countries and foundations for immediate relief. Private donors, foundation and businesses will likely promise millions more.”

“But are these teams spending this money effectively,” he asks. “Are we doing the best we can to reach the most people as quickly as possible? Nobody knows.”

Kirsch has been on the ground in numerous countries after major disasters. It’s these experiences, he writes, particularly his work in Haiti, following the devastating 2010 earthquake, that have helped him to understand that systematic gathering of data is necessary to improve the effectiveness of future relief efforts.

“I spent weeks there in the ensuing chaos, providing emergency services with limited supplies and equipment to people sleeping outdoors with little food, sanitation and clean water,” he recounts. “We went back a year later to see whether people had received what they needed from the vast outpouring of money.

“They had not.”

Kirsch suggests that disaster relief teams include personnel dedicated to collecting, analyzing and sharing data. Doing so would provide governments, donors and relief organizations with information to answer basic questions about the actual impact of response actions. 

“Only by using objective data can we bring the right help to the right people the right way.”

Thomas D. Kirsch, MD, MPH ’86, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee and Disaster Response
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

“As a physician,” he observes, “I know how the tools of ‘evidence-based medicine’ improve my practice and help me provide the best possible care…what we need is a similar understanding of the importance of ‘evidence-based disaster response.’ Only by using objective data can we bring the right help to the right people the right way.”