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After the Quake

Economics professor Tahir Andrabi is helping to get earthquake relief distributed to the people who need it most in his homeland of Pakistan.

When a massive earthquake rocked Pakistan in October, Associate Professor of Economics Tahir Andrabi wanted to rush back to his homeland to help with the relief effort. But his research colleague, Asim Khwaja, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, helped convince Andrabi he could do more good by staying put.

The professors, along with collaborators Jishnu Das and Tara Vishwanath from the World Bank, quickly launched a Website designed to help make sure relief reached the smallest villages in northern Pakistan, where the 7.6-magnitude quake killed tens of thousands of people. Many villages in the mountainous earthquake zone are remote, unmapped and known only by colloquial names, presenting obstacles to making sure aid reaches those most in need. The site, www.RISEPAK.com (for Relief Information System for Earthquakes – Pakistan), has received more than 35,000 hits. And it all started from Andrabi’s laptop computer.

The site offers relief workers, local officials or individuals the chance to post information about damage, access issues or relief needs for their village. Examples:

  • "School buildings have collapsed. The buildings of national bank, the CMH and old secretariat building have fully collapsed. No relief effort is being made. No medical camp is being set up ..."
  • "The area was approached with great difficulty and access is very bad, still a one-day medical camp was set up and around two hundred people were provided with medicine and treated for their injuries."
  • "This village, Koyian, has 35 houses out of which 33 were destroyed. (The village) needs immediate help in metal sheet shelters, as this is a heavy snow fall area. Snow fall season is near so tents will not help in heavy snow times."

Andrabi, whose family hails from the Muzzaffarad region devastated by the quake, felt a deep personal connection to what was happening as he continued to receive news that people he knew had died. As an economist, he also has been able to step back and look at the lessons that can be learned about delivering relief aid in the most efficient way:

Find the right niche to fill. Andrabi and Khwaja already had been working with Pakistani census data for their research into madrassas, or Islamic schools, in rural villages of Pakistan. So they were in the best position to put this demographic and geographic information to use helping quake victims. In economics jargon, “Our competitive advantage really was at the village level,” said Andrabi. “We had the village information.” So the site helped fill a crucial role of coordination, trying to make sure aid flowed to where it was most needed, instead of just going to the most accessible areas.

Don’t duplicate; collaborate. In those first days after the quake, Andrabi and Khwaja learned through their networks that others were creating similar quake aid Websites. So they brought those people into their effort to create a clearinghouse for information. One of the first quake sites up, www.insanityworks.org, was created by Ameel Khan, a tech-savvy graduate of Lahore University of Management Sciences who still lives in that city. Andrabi and Khwaja made Khan a partner in the site, and he prominently promoted a link to it on his own, more general, quake site.

Find a way to get the right data. Working with so many different relief groups, Andrabi discovered that everybody was reporting on their aid deliveries in different ways. Sometimes the information was too vague. For example, a group would report providing aid to a county, instead of breaking it down to the village level. Andrabi then  worked to get people to provide specifics in a more standardized way so aid could be delivered most effectively. Many aid groups wound up using RISE-PAK’s standardized reporting forms.

Make that data available to everyone. Andrabi initially ran into some resistance to making all of the information on village needs open for posting on the Web, with some suggesting an intranet instead. But there wasn’t the time nor the technical know-how on the ground to pull that off. And Andrabi found that the open, decentralized nature of the Web proved helpful because people anywhere could access the information.

Understand the difference between passion and emotion. In his case, Andrabi believes jetting off to Pakistan immediately would have been an emotional response more geared to making himself feel good than providing the best possible help. Twelve days after the quake, Andrabi did wind up going to Pakistan. At that point, he had found a focus, and was very assertive in urging the Pakistani Army and other agencies to opens doors that would aid the relief effort. He believes his passion helped convince people to cooperate. “That affects people,” he said.

Two months after the quake, Andrabi and his colleagues now face a new challenge as the focus of relief efforts shift. He and his colleagues plan to stay involved on a strategic level, but a Pakistani university has taken over day-to-day operation of the site. “You need to have a sustainability strategy,” says Andrabi. “You have to be flexible. You have to bring in new principals."

Andrabi says that even as relief efforts shift to a new stage, the Website can continue to help with the efficient distribution of aid. A U.S.-based Pakistani group recently contacted Andrabi for help finding a village they could sponsor over the next five years. The data from the Website should help him make a good match.

He believes RISE-PAK’s efforts were successful in helping direct aid to the right places and helping provide a voice for the remote villages. “I think we managed to affect the terms of the debate,” says Andrabi. “We put the villages on the map, literally.”