“Disaster relief works like this: There is a flood, a drought, an earthquake, a famine, an exodus of refugees. Reporters swarm in, broadcasting images of suffering. Humanitarian workers on the ground analyze who needs what relief and draw up plans. The government asks for help. The United Nations coordinates international pledges. Relief comes in — money, bags of grain, medical supplies.
But by that point, weeks or months have gone by.
Rarely is there preplanning, pre-fundraising, or pre-agreement on a plan. “This is medieval,” said Stefan Dercon, a professor of economic policy at Oxford and a former chief economist of Britain’s bilateral aid agency, the Department for International Development. He and Daniel Clarke, head of the London-based Center for Disaster Protection, wrote the book “Dull Disasters? How Planning Ahead Will Make a Difference.”
“It is as if financial instruments such as insurance do not exist,” they wrote. “This is begging-bowl financing at its worst.”
But here’s what can happen instead — what, in fact, did happen in the Kurigram district of northwest Bangladesh in July. With colossal rains predicted, the United Nations World Food Program and the Bangladesh government identified about 5,000 particularly vulnerable families. Three days before the flood hit, they used mobile phone banking to send each family the equivalent of $53. With that money, the families secured their houses and belongings — for example, buying materials to lift their furniture off the ground. And they could pay the costs of taking their livestock and fleeing.”