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OPINION: As Americans, we have a duty to respond to disasters

By Lee Hamilton


The earthquakes that struck north-western Afghanistan in October were devastating and horrific. They caused at least 1,295 deaths and injured at least 1,800 people, according to the United Nations. They compounded a humanitarian crisis that has grown worse since the Taliban took over the country in 2021. 

Faced with such immense suffering, the human response is to want to help, and we are. The U.S. Agency for International Development, our nation’s primary international disaster response agency, is providing $12 million in humanitarian assistance. Other nations and private organizations are also providing relief.

But the scale of the world’s suffering can seem overwhelming, and 2023 has been an especially bad year:

• In February, two powerful earthquakes hit southern Turkey, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and war-torn Syria and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. They were the deadliest quakes in Turkey’s modern history.

• In September, a massive Mediterranean storm dumped heavy rain on Libya. Two dams collapsed, resulting in floods that killed more than 11,000 people and displaced tens of thousands. It followed a string of deadly floods in China, Brazil, Greece and elsewhere.

• Also in September, an earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring over 5,000 and leaving many homeless in remote areas.

And there have been disasters here at home, including the wildfires that killed nearly 100 people in Hawaii in August as well as floods, drought and more. In the first eight months of 2023, the U.S. experienced a record 23 weather and climate disasters that caused more than $1 billion in damages. President Joe Biden has issued dozens of disaster and emergency proclamations this year.

All this hardship challenges us to respond. It raises an important recurring question: What is our duty to people who, through no fault of their own, have their lives turned upside down by disasters.

 In my view, Americans can and should take a leading role in relieving suffering. We have the resources, and most of us take pride in helping as much as we can. We have a moral duty to step up and it’s the right thing to do. It also provides an opportunity to win favor in the world. It generates a lot of goodwill when we provide assistance.

And we can afford it. Americans consistently overestimate what we spend on foreign aid. In fact, it’s less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and disaster assistance is just a fraction of that.

The world sees the U.S. as a leader in humanitarian relief. We respond to dozens of international disasters every year. Our help is more effective when it’s delivered in coordination with other countries, of course, often through organizations like the UN.

Philanthropic efforts also play a vital role. Many Americans donate generously to organizations like the International Red Cross, the Red Crescent, CARE, Save the Children and many others. When a disaster strikes, experts typically recommend giving money to established organizations, which have the experience and infrastructure to get help where it’s needed.

We can’t prevent earthquakes, but we can support efforts to build resilient physical infrastructure in regions where quakes are common.

And when disasters strike, as they inevitably will, we can respond promptly and generously. True, Americans can’t do all this on our own. But we are the richest country in the world. We can do a lot to respond to and alleviate human suffering, and we should.        

Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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