A Sense of Duty
Q&A / Professor Tahir Andrabi on Pakistani
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
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
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
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
-- Interview and photo by Michael Bernstein '08