Monday, 18 November 2013

Dealing with disaster

The catastrophe of the Philippines typhoon has, like all disasters in the media age, been played out on our TV screens nightly*. That it is a natural catastrophe sharpens and simplifies our moral sense of it, perhaps because unlike those associated with war, such as in Syria, it is more easily understood as something where we can take sides. That is, we can readily empathise with, and side with, those who have had their lives destroyed because the causes of that destruction seem random and so there is no fault attached to them. Of course that is also true of the refugees from the war in Syria but the war itself is something that seems for many of us morally ambiguous and complex, and its solutions intractable. A natural disaster invites an emotionally and morally more simple response. Around the edges (climate change, governmental response) there is a politics, but its core seems to be, to use that peculiarly quaint term from insurance policies, an ‘Act of God’.

I happen to have a Philippino neighbour, who was much moved by the fact that the British people have this week donated some £33M** to the relief effort and that the British government have sent military resources to assist it. Thinking about this I was struck by something. When a major catastrophe strikes, the assistance is delivered bureaucratically and via command-and-control organizations. The UK relief effort was co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the very name of which straightforwardly speaks its purpose and bespeaks of a kind of bureaucratic traditionalism (a ‘committee’ no less, not even a task force), whilst the military response is delivered by the most traditional of hierarchies.

What is notably absent in such situations is any recourse to networked organizations, values and vision workshops, key performance indicators, quality assurance mechanisms, charismatic leadership or anything else from the sorry lexicon of contemporary managerialism. When something serious happens, we simply don’t need or want these things. But if this is so, perhaps we don’t need or want them at all?

In the same way that natural catastrophes clarify our emotional and moral priorities, perhaps they also serve to clarify our organizational ones?

* I notice that this week there has been a Philippino reader of this blog. Good wishes to you.
** By contrast the first two days of the DEC Appeal for Syria raised £3.4M and has to date raised £23M.

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