Situational Altruism: Toward an Explanation of Pathologies in Disaster Assistance

Dynes, Russell R.
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Disaster Research Center
Case studies of emergency response in disasters suggest that certain problem recur, regardless of location or timing. Among these recurrent problems are instances of too much assistance and/or the wrong kind of assistance. Too, that assistance is often delivered in inefficient and ineffective ways. Massive human and material resources produce convergence and lack of coordination. Among helping organizations, there is overlap as well as gaps in service. Questions of equity in assistance are raised as well as the possibility of exploitation of victims while concern is expressed to avoid victim dependence. Efficient assistance is impeded by bureaucratic norms which lead to confusion and frustration. Bureaucratic organizations are seen as uncaring while caring organizations lack standards. While these issues are well known, they are often seen as quite solvable. For some, they indicate the necessity of preplanning. For others, they require the imposition of strong leadership. A less sanguine view is taken here in that these problems cannot be easily solved since they are part and parcel of the solution to disaster assistance which has emerged in industrial societies. The point of view here is that situational altruism produces a massive response of human and material resources to cope effectively with disaster. That response is, in many ways, very inefficient. Understanding that process of situational altruism provides basis for evaluating misplaced policy solutions as well as a basis for understanding how the process works as well as it does.
altruism , pathologies