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Volume 41. No. 2.
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A Sense of Duty
Q&A / Professor Tahir Andrabi on Pakistani earthquake relief

WHEN A MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE hit Pakistan in October 2005, Associate Professor of Economics Tahir Andrabi and his research colleague, Asim Khwaja, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, quickly launched a Web site designed to help make sure relief reached the smallest villages in northern Pakistan. The 7.6-magnitude quake killed tens of thousands of people. The site, www.RISEPAK.com (for Relief Information System for Earthquakes—Pakistan), offers relief workers, Pakistani officials and individuals the chance to post information about damage, access issues and relief needs for villages. The site has received more than 35,000 hits.

What impact did the quake have on you?
To me, the personal feelings about the quake resonated deeply. My father was from the region and worked there when I was young. It is very remote. He always told us stories about being the only doctor in this 500-square-mile area. As a kid, I had traveled in this region so many times.My cousins live there. My aunts and uncles live there. I have a lot of personal connections. So when the earthquake happened, that was my first thought—I mean God, I know so many people who live there. I felt a sense of duty.

How did you think you could help?
My first reaction was to go, but everyone has a comparative advantage. Mine was not to go there and pick up shovels and picks and dig through the rubble. As an economist, my comparative advantage was twofold. Economists have a very clear sense about how to think about shocks, how to think about risk, how to think about flows of goods in and out of communities.

Also, some of my previous research had been about schooling and enrollment in Pakistani villages. I realized how difficult it was to figure out where the villages were and how to contact people. And I realized how important it was to figure out what was going on at the village level because the emphasis of the news was on these big cities.

How did you coordinate the relief efforts?
Relief, even though it is managed by the government, happens in a very decentralized way. Information exists in pockets. So, for instance, one organization has digital maps, another organization has data, somebody else is bringing food. We ended up talking to a lot of the relief providers, small and large. We called them and asked them to tell us on the map specifically the places they go. They are saying, ‘paper work, at this point? You got to be nuts!’ But we said, ‘hey listen, for relief to work you have to standardize your information, you have to report back what you are doing.’ And then we started talking with the two big [agencies]: the Pakistani army and the U.N. We created a standardized form. Standardizing information was one of our big accomplishments.

Did you go to Pakistan?
I went to Pakistan 10 days after the quake. The World Bank was going with a team to do damage assessment, and I went with them. During the day I worked with the damage assessment team, and at night I would work with the Federal Relief Commission. One night I met with the federal relief commissioner and gave him my whole spiel about how the information has to be standardized. And so he goes to a meeting and then comes back and says to me that he had just been at a meeting with the president, who gave him some forms and said, “this seems to be a very interesting way to do it,” and they were forms from our Web site. So we had reached the president.

Why do you think you were successful?
I think a reason why our effort resonated in Pakistan was that we really were serious about giving a voice to these people. We treated every episode with equal weight. If some poor guy said, “I didn’t get relief,” and the government said, “We disagree, we provided blankets here,” well, I’m sorry, but he said he didn’t get any relief. I think what happened is that we became an integral part of the community of people who were providing aid.

What did you learn from this experience?
Large organizations will not be able to quickly respond to a disaster. It is largely a decentralized effort that will save the most lives. I think that we should be aware that coordination needs to happen immediately. I think the first week we really suffered. I mean if you think about if we set up the infrastructure two months earlier … I think that’s what keeps you going—because the direct correlation with lives lost is so real. You see it right in front of your eyes.

What is the next step?
What we want to do now is think more conceptually about reconstruction. Relief is about the single principle of saving lives, but reconstruction is complicated. When areas in which poor people have lived are destroyed, do we rebuild the slums? Do you think of this as an opportunity to do a massive anti-poverty intervention? Since a lot of money is going into this, do we rethink, or are we just interested in recreating status quo? This summer I am going to organize a conference in Pakistan on the lessons we have drawn from this experience and about reconstruction and the economy.

Andrabi, who will take his family to work in Pakistan this summer, believes that the relief effort has presented a unique learning environment for his two young children. “This earthquake has broken a lot of barriers,” says Andrabi. “People from all over the world are working there.” Andrabi hopes this bodes well for peace and stability in the region.
-- Interview and photo by Michael Bernstein '08

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