Panelists on Global Disaster Relief Panel Humble Fellow HBSers

“Management Skills in Global Disaster Relief Effort” was the title of last week’s panel discussion, which featured two students, an alumnus, and a professor. Under discussion was the contribution MBA students can make when disaster strikes. Donating money is crucial, but can we do more to improve the lives of those in desperate need?

The panel featured Dan Curran, MBA 2000, who spent seven years prior to HBS directing international relief and development operations, and until very recently was the Director of the Humanitarian Leadership Program at HBS; Zaid Ashai, MBA/MPA 2007, who started and still runs Novare Res, a venture philanthropy fund sponsoring local non-profit organizations in South Asia; John Serafini, MBA/MPA 2007, who spent last summer in Singapore assisting with Tsunami-relief efforts; and Professor Michael Chu, former President and CEO of ACCION and currently a Senior Lecturer for the Initiative on Social Enterprise of the General Management Group.

Need for Management Talent in Disaster Relief
The panelists consistently praised the efforts, dedication and passion of disaster relief workers on the ground in various regions around the world. These people work extremely hard and are very good at the work they do: building homes, distributing food and clothing to the affected population, and many other tasks necessary for relief. At the same time, Dan Curran pointed out that one of the reasons he decided to come to HBS was his observations across the globe about the lack of managerial talent present in many of the world’s NGOs. Although significant capital is contributed, often little managerial time is spent assessing how to best spend limited funds, where to allocate human capital, and how to create a sustainable rebuilding effort once disaster relief workers leave.

Four Stages of Disaster Relief
John Serafini highlighted four phases of relief efforts: Prevention, Immediate Relief (0-6 months), Rehabilitation (6-24 months), and Recovery (long term). Zaid Ashai pointed out that many people focus on donating funds for immediate relief, although the majority of funds may be more useful if allocated during the Rehabilitation and Recovery phases.

Allocating Donations
Prof. Chu cited that around 70% of all giving to Katrina went to the Red Cross, an organization poorly equipped to carry out long-term reconstruction. This was not a criticism of the Red Cross, but rather an observation about the inefficient allocation of funds to NGOs, which stands in stark contrast to the near-perfect information, and hence efficient, allocation of funds in the stock market. This inefficiency occurs in the not-for-profit arena as a direct result of the lack of access to information about many NGOs around the world.

Prof. Chu implored HBS students to think more carefully about writing a check to the Red Cross, and instead to research which organization is best positioned to perform relief and reconstruction efforts. The timing of giving also matters as funds quickly dry up after the initial surge in donations. The ultimate goal of relief is recovery, according to the phases outlined by Serafini. But as Ashai pointed out, the funds are no longer available as the fervor of giving dies down and the public moves on to the next hot news topic.

The panel’s parting advice to students was to consider very carefully where they might best help in relief efforts. Those donating funds should do so thoughtfully and those wanting to work in the field should assess their strengths before deciding which of the various phases of relief work to get involved in. However, ultimately, every contribution makes a difference.