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School's Tsunami Relief Effort Shifts into Next Phase

Many faculty at the School see the next stage of the School's tsunami response as one of collecting data on those tsunami survivors still facing long-term displacement, according to W. Courtland Robinson, PhD.

Robinson, assistant professor of International Health, participated in acute relief work in Indonesia from January 12  to January 26, and now has turned to the resettlement of Indonesia's thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs).  

W. Courtland Robinson

W. Courtland Robinson

"We're moving now from a time horizon of hours and days to one of several months, helping NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the governments of affected nations decide how best to relocate people so that schools and mosques can reopen and large IDP camps, which breed disease and disaffection, can be avoided."

"Displacement has two effects," explains Robinson. "First, people are forced to leave their homes and, second, they move into other communities. It's this second feature of displacement that disrupts life in other communities. Schools and clinics become overcrowded, wells go dry, sewage becomes a problem."

"Certainly," he says, "if it's a family member who moves in with you after a disaster, that's OK. But if it's the people down the road, or from the next village over, or if your child's school is filled to overflowing, pretty soon you start to think, 'This is hurting me,' and that initial warm and life-saving welcome begins to wear thin."

Robinson and others at the School have worked to develop an "intentions survey," which one organization with whom he has worked for several years, Mercy Corps, is  now using in interviews with households displaced by the tsunami. "Through this survey," says Robinson, "we're asking, What do you plan to be doing in the next three months?" Among other things, the researchers hope to determine:

  • the percentage of displaced persons who don't plan to return home, and why (trauma too great? damage too extensive? land now under water?)
  • the percentage of former fishermen, farmers, etc., who want to resume their trade
  • the percentage waiting for the government to relocate them
  • the  percentage not making plans about their future

Once these data are in hand, Robinson expects that NGOs and policy makers will be able to design humane and viable plans for those who can't or won't go back. (What's not viable? "Handing them a wad of cash, patting them on the back and saying, 'Here you go,' " he says.)

The swiftness and organization of the clean-up work impressed Robinson. He arrived two weeks after the tsunami and of course saw the devastation. But beyond the devastation, "I was impressed with how much clean-up had already gone on. I'd been expecting rubble and perhaps thousands of bodies, but university students and other local volunteers had been enlisted for clean-up crews, bagging bodies and helping the Red Cross take photos for future identification."

And these clean-up crews, he said, "were not just guys jumping on the next plane." They were students who had been screened for physical and psychological stamina and they were allowed to work at the scene for no more than two weeks. "They were tough young men—often rugby players, many studying criminal justice—and they were tougher after the few weeks they were there."

"I’ve never seen a volunteer undertaking so organized, so well thought out. I told these young men, 'You guys are heroes!' They seemed moved by someone from outside praising them so highly."

Robinson is optimistic about the long-term relief effort but says the challenges ahead are enormous. "Patience and judgment must be exercised so resources can be husbanded and used later where more sustainable assistance is needed." Moreover, he notes that whenever huge amounts of money must be spent quickly, waste is endemic. "There's no way you can take this kind of money and push it into programs at the speed it's going now, without a lot of waste and, probably, some graft and diversion."

"This is a long-term problem but not a permanent one. The time horizon will at some point shift from several months to one of several years, and then you begin to shift your assets over to local entities and phase yourself out of a job. We're not perfect, but this is the model one likes to promote. It's my job to be optimistic and to work toward getting  it right this time."  —Rod Graham