Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Disaster Relief: The Damages of Excessive Outsider Reliance



A few days ago, I wrote about the Japanese Soto Shu's questionable disaster fundraising decisions. This story, about a Soto Zen priest staying in his temple not too far from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, offers a few additional points I'd like to make about Soto's Shu's decision.

Mita is a kindly, round-faced man in his late sixties, and is not concerned with his own safety. His job—to tend to anyone who is suffering and in need of comfort—is a growth area in a shattered economy. “I would only leave if I were the last person standing in this town,” he says. Fear of radiation may make his prediction a reality. The temple, which is of the Sotoshu or Zen sect, is located about twenty-five miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The temple’s precise distance from the plant places it in bureaucratic limbo: outside the mandatory twelve-mile evacuation zone imposed by Japanese authorities, and just beyond the twelve-to-nineteen mile “stay indoors” zone. Skeptical of official pronouncements, residents at the twenty-five-mile mark have no particular reason to feel secure. And all the roads down from the temple, which is on a hill, lead to Iwaki; to get supplies, my relatives must cross into the “stay inside” zone.

Food, water, and gasoline in Iwaki City remain scarce. A few stores have supplies, but shopping requires standing in line outside for two to three hours at a time. Supply trucks reportedly refuse to enter the city for fear of radiation, forcing residents to find creative ways to cope. At the temple, the family survives in old ways and new. Mita’s wife, Ryoko, goes to her neighbor’s house once a day to pump water from a well and to fill up buckets and canisters so she is able to cook.


One of the things I have noticed with many of the natural disasters that have happened in recent years is that there is an over-reliance on "outside experts." Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that large organizations like the Red Cross have become so default that when something devastating happens, national leaders in a given country will automatically see these groups as the main - even only ones - capable of handling the heavy, difficult work of finding missing people, and cleaning up the destruction.

Now, I bring this up not to diminish the importance of, and general goodwill of, outside groups aiding in situations like what happened in Japan. I bring it up to point out that those who are most intimate with the conditions on the ground - the people, culture, and the land - the locals - tend to be displaced. In fact, they themselves might discount their own skills and abilities to serve their neighbors, friends and family who are suffering, and/or are told by the powers that be that whatever they do must be subordinate to the directives of those "outside experts."

Another issue that comes with this reliance on outsiders is that the most dangerous, devastated, and/or outlying areas often receive the least support. The story above demonstrates this, and I recall recently reading an article about more rural areas in Haiti that were left barely touched by aid work months after the earthquake that happened there in early 2010. Because conditions might be considered "too risky" for aid workers, or because the groups in charge simply don't know about outlying villages or are approaching things from a numbers game - how can we help the most people - others are left to fend for themselves under miserable conditions.

And at the same time, even with these miserable conditions, there might be individuals and groups who have the skills and wherewithal to do something, but their reach ends up being limited by the lack of resources and support.

When I wrote that the national Soto Shu could have used donated money to support their people on the ground, I wasn't saying they should try to become like a mini-Red Cross. What I was saying is that they could have figured out ways to get money and relief goods (food, clothing, medical supplies) into the hands of those like Head Priest Mita, who are in the middle of it all, and are intimate with the current needs being presented.

I see all of this as part of a larger pattern of mistrust - internally and externally. National religious bodies like the Japanese Soto Shu decide not only that they aren't capable of doing anything helpful, but that they also can't trust giving funds over to their local temples to distribute. Government officials, who tend to come from privileged backgrounds, don't trust the "common people." Outside groups, like the Red Cross, present an image of being trained to deal with everything in a disaster situation. And so collectively, being in the middle of the storm of suffering, the different forms of leadership turn their back on whatever wisdom and skills they have, believing that the outsiders must have a better sense of what to do.

The realities tend to be more complex. Outsider groups bring certain gifts, and insider groups bring certain gifts. And when those two realities are recognized, wonderful things happen. However, too often, the insider groups - especially those made up of everyday people - are either considered of secondary importance, or are completely overwhelmed by the outside experts. In fact, sometimes their efforts to help their fellow neighbors are completely blocked, and considered wrongheaded by people who have little or no knowledge of the cultural norms of the community in question.

I fully support outsider groups offering skills, expertise, and a sense of calm in crisis situations. However, I believe it's extremely important to support organizations that deliberately make partnerships with those who are of the communities impacts - that they exude a sense of trust in the people of the place to know what directions are most appropriate to go in, and which are not. That they know how to work with people whose communities have been destroyed in such a way that, through whatever they are doing, it's more possible for the local leaders to tap into their wisdom and skills, and trust themselves enough to help lead the relief work.

In some ways, just blaming the Red Cross or Soto-Shu, isn't a deep enough analysis. The pattern of believing in outside experts isn't limited to disaster relief - it's a human trend, especially when issues become complicated. Sometimes, experts are the correct remedy. And sometimes they are a great hindrance. Consider the recent discussions about Zen teachers, and the teacher/student relationship. When students cling too much to their teacher, crappy shit tends to happen for everyone involved. And it also seems to be the case that when students take the loner role, thinking they can do it all on their own, crappy things often happen.

Right relationship, whether you're talking about disaster relief or teachers and students, requires more fluidity, shared wisdom, and a more intelligent form of intimacy.

13 comments:

moritheil said...

It's also pretty devastating to the local economy. Drugstores in Haiti were ignored and bankrupted in the wake of free drugs provided after the earthquake. Now, it's certainly a good thing to provide drugs to those affected by natural disasters, but to set up entirely new supply routes and methods do so diminishes the importance and legitimacy of existing infrastructure.

NellaLou said...

Whites in Shining Armour is an article that touches upon this topic as well

Barbara O'Brien said...

First, I appreciate that there are issues with the Red Cross, and the organization is not beyond reproach. However, are they really an "outside organization" in Japan? The Japanese Red Cross surely is directing the organization's work in Japan, just as the American Red Cross does the work in America. Japan is not some third world country that doesn't have local chapters of the major relief agencies in place.

I agree that outsiders don't need to be parachuting into Japan to tell the Japanese what to do, but I don't believe that's what's happening.

And I have yet to see news stories about western celebrities going to Japan to help the "natives." (I did see lots of news stories like that about New Orleans, though.)

I don't think we should assume that what went wrong in Haiti will happen in Japan just because the Red Cross is involved. Haiti had huge systemic problems before the hurricane, and those problems have confounded relief work there. Japan is different.

Petteri Sulonen said...

What Barbara said.

I may be repeating myself here, but I get the feeling that you're not quite considering the sheer difficulty of disaster relief work. It's like fighting a war. You can do it with an improvised force of whatever happens to be there, but it's not going to go as well as if you had a trained, equipped, and coordinated army.

I don't know much about the local conditions in Japan, but the ICRC is such an army. Perfect, hell no. But when it comes to large-scale disaster relief—getting vital supplies to affected areas, getting injured people out, establishing communications and emergency infrastructure etc.—they are pretty damn good. If they're actually already in place and have a prepared local infrastructure, as is surely the case in Japan, they're very good. Certainly better than an improvised network of temples trying to figure out how to send a sack of rice to some temple near Sendai.

What's more, I think you're giving them very much a bum rap by implying that they don't understand local conditions or recruit and work with locals when in the area. Hell, I'm pretty damn sure that in the Japanese case, many of the Red Cross people there *are* local. There are Red Cross people in my town, and if we got hit by the disaster, they'd be the ones organizing the damn thing on the ground, getting the "outside" aid where it's needed as the bigger organization funnels it in.

And as Barbara said, there's nothing "white in shining armor" about the Japanese Red Cross. It's a Japanese organization, with the added advantage of being able to easily draw on the resources of the International Red Cross.

Sometimes grassroots citizen activism is exactly what's needed. But sometimes large-scale bureucratic organizational efforts are what it takes. And sometimes you can take your distrust of government and governance too far. I've seen what a failed state looks like, and believe me, it's not nice at all.

And in the case of a massive natural disaster, a large-scale organizational effort saves lives on a huge scale. If there is a professional disaster relief organization in place, help it do its job as much as you can; don't get in the way or think that you can do it better. If the Sotoshu understands this, I believe it reflects very well on their judgment.

Nathan said...

I'm getting a fair amount of blast back on this issue. Am sort of surprised how many people are so supportive of the Red Cross, given it's checkered history over the past few decades. Which isn't to say that they haven't done some extraordinary work, because they have.

I'll give both of you - Barbara and Petteri - the point that there are probably more local Red Cross folks in these Japanese towns and cities than in a place like Haiti.

You know, it's always funny how any critical considerations of situations like this tend to make people uncomfortable. That's been my experience anyway.

Disaster relief has become highly tied to some serious class (and often race issues) in recent decades. Even in wealthy nations, this is true.

Take New Orleans. Where disaster quickly brought in venture capitalists and permanently displaced entire neighborhoods.
The school district was partially privatized. Clean up and rebuilding were done by mostly outside contractors (many of whom hired undocumented immigrants from other places to work on the cheap), even when local contractors and workers were available. At every step of the way, people who had called New Orleans home for decades have had to fight to be a part of the rebuilding process, and even just to have their homes again.

And I can't help but thinking that this started with the way in which the vast majority of the initial disaster relief was controlled almost entirely by outsiders - FEMA, National Guard troops, and eventually the Red Cross folks that mostly were from other states.

Nathan said...

Now, it's true that comparisons between what happened in New Orleans, and what's happening now in Japan only go so far. They are different situations, which different conditions. But this doesn't mean some similar issues aren't occurring.

"Sometimes grassroots citizen activism is exactly what's needed. But sometimes large-scale bureucratic organizational efforts are what it takes."

In a disaster this size, I'd say both are required. I really don't understand why it appears I'm arguing against outside aid from larger organizations, because I'm not. I'm arguing that when local residents aren't front and center in decision making positions from the beginning, powerful and wealthy interests tend to take over and marginalize the rest.

But furthermore, I'm interested in what I'll call the "expert syndrome" - that in so many situations, from personal health care to social issues to the deepest of spiritual insights - many of us tend to over-emphasize and over rely on people we consider experts, and downplay our own wisdom and skills.

Instead of having a partnership with our doctors, where we respect their training and insight, but also respect our own body/mind awareness - many of us just hand our health over and become passive recipients. That's just one example I'll offer, but I see this operating on a larger, collective scale in situations like natural disasters.

Petteri Sulonen said...

You know, it's always funny how any critical considerations of situations like this tend to make people uncomfortable.

Are you speaking of your own feelings, or how you imagine other people in the discussion are feeling?

Nathan said...

Petteri - general observation. Take it how you want.

Nathan said...

Eh, that last comment was too cagey. I'm not uncomfortable, just a little surprised is all. Not even sure what exactly it is that surprises me. It's not the disagreements - I've had plenty of that on the blog before, and it's no big deal usually.

Anyway, as I said, the "uncomfortable" comment was a general statement based on what I have seen around posts/responses to posts (not just mine) critical of the Soto Shu's decision, and/or sending money to the Red Cross in support of Japan.

I can see how, when it came right after a statement directed at you and Barbara, that it could be seen as assuming you two are presenting that. Knee jerk defenses of Soto Shu, the Red Cross, and the like are manifestations of what I'm calling uncomfortable.

Barbara certainly questioned some of what's going on in relation to the Soto Shu decision in her recent post. Petteri, you seem to have a more accepting view of most of it. I guess that's a little surprising to me. But other responses I have seen, from Zen students and teachers, also have surprised me.

Nathan said...

Like I said, I can't really say exactly what it is - more of a feeling of "huh? this isn't what I expected?" Which isn't a bad thing. I guess what I figured was that after all the talk and analysis around power and authority about in relation to Zen teachers and organizations in recent months - all the back and forth outlining the pros and cons of having national oversight organizations for North American and European Zen - all the pro and con talk about the American Zen Teachers Association's role or lack there of in the case of Genpo Roshi...

I guess I figured there would be more interest in examining/questioning the role and decisions of another head Zen organization, Soto Shu - which has chapters all over the world now. Jundo's point about all the other religious orgs directly doing aid work, including some other buddhist ones, is something I didn't take up, but is another important point. In fact, it would have made my posts stronger to include it. Why is it fine for Soto Shu to offer such a passive support when other religious groups (including Buddhist ones) are much more active?

I don't know - the whole thing raises a lot of questions for me.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Re Sotoshu, I have no horse whatsoever in that race. I have only the haziest idea of what they're about, and most of that is from the snide comments from Brad Warner's gang. Perhaps I rose to their defense because they're such a favorite punching-bag of you alt-lifestyle anti-establishment types. Being a big, bureaucratic organization and all.

So yeah, plenty of kneejerk to go around here, methinks. "Sotoshu." Doink! "Red cross." Doink! "Nuclear power." Doink! "Intervention." Doink! "Economic growth." Doink!

Sometimes I get really tired of these conversations, because they're so fucking predictable. I know exactly what everyone is going to say before they say it, so why bother? Doink!

Nathan said...

Petteri - pretty nasty response, man. That's all I can say to that.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yes, it was. Did it occur to you to wonder what provoked it?

Oh, right. I forgot. A "knee-jerk response" to "discomfort" caused by your "critical considerations." Sorry.