TSUNAMI Workers attempt to relieve confusion
Relief operations could use more organization and planning, a doctor says.
CALANG, Indonesia -- Dr. Joel Selanikio, an international relief specialist, set up a chart on a makeshift white board one day recently in an attempt to bring a little more organization to the humanitarian effort of which he is a part.
He listed dates on the left and the names of places and tasks along the top. On the lower right was a list of upcoming departures of people and supplies to be ordered from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. Next to it was a list of important questions yet to be answered.
Organizing has become an obsession for Dr. Selanikio.
The aid provided to Indonesian survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami has been marked by extreme generosity and dogged work, but also a fair amount of confusion and duplication. Dr. Selanikio, a physician with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who has a decade of relief work and disaster-preparedness experience behind him, said the operation could use more centralized decision-making, planning and technology.
"The field advances very slowly," Dr. Selanikio said, frustration in his voice.
He welcomed recent moves by the Indonesian military to take a bigger role in directing humanitarian aid groups in this town, which once had 8,000 residents and now has 2,500 tsunami survivors living in hand-built shacks.
"I'm not an idiot. I know what the Indonesian military has done in the past," he said, alluding to abuses in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that was occupied by Indonesia and became independent only after battling the Indonesian military's proxy militias. But every private group he's spoken to has said the military had "done a very serviceable job here," he said.
If the host nation does not assert itself, humanitarian relief will remain largely unstructured. While U.N. agencies and the World Health Organization (WHO) help organize and steer relief efforts, they don't have the authority to order a nongovernmental organization either to do something or to stop doing something.
Nevertheless, order and standardization are coming to his business, Dr. Selanikio said. He gave as an example the "basic medical kit," a box containing supplies for providing primary care to 1,000 people for three months. WHO certifies the contents. Relief groups know what they are getting in such kits.
Dr. Selanikio thinks there should also be a "basic administrative kit," perhaps not WHO-approved but at least standard to an organization such as the IRC. It would contain a purchasing ledger and receipt book -- relief work involves much logistics and labor management -- a whiteboard, a folding table and chairs, and possibly modular shelves, so medical supplies could be quickly organized, he said.
Anything that makes relief work more efficient has the power to relieve misery more quickly and even to save lives, he said.
Dr. Selanikio previously worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed service with a command structure similar to the Navy's. There, he helped run disaster relief activities for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after several Caribbean hurricanes, worked with refugees on the Thailand-Burma border, and took part in health projects in several African countries.