Thursday, March 3, 2011

Q&A With Author Jennifer Hyndman

Jennifer Hyndman, author of the new book Dual Disasters provides insight on the 2004 tsunami and what it means for humanitarian response going forward. To see a video companion to the book, click here (password: Lhokse).

Explain the meaning of your book title: “Dual Disasters”

The concept describes a situation where a humanitarian crisis with human-made political roots overlaps with a humanitarian crisis induced by environmental disaster.

You conducted many interviews with aid workers, activists and government officials in researching this book. What was the most surprising thing you learned from these encounters?

People worldwide will respond generously to help the blameless survivors of a tsunami, but are much less interested in helping those dispossessed by war. This differential response creates disparate landscapes of humanitarian aid.

What are some ways that social and political realities shape disaster response?

Prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion do not disappear during a crisis. In fact, they are often exacerbated. International aid can fuel flames of nationalism and mistrust if not carefully calibrated to a context of conflict.

How was the response and recovery different in Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia? How were they similar?

The Indonesian response was more state-centric and slower, with sovereignty and recovery tightly interwoven. In Sri Lanka, aid was a tool for reconstruction but also became a medium of political negotiations among oppositional factions in an unresolved conflict. As such it was politicized more than in Aceh.

Why did the 2004 tsunami attract more aid and attention than the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan? What factors determine the level of response in disasters?

People across world regions could witness the dramatic disaster of the tsunami, even envision themselves as part of such a tragedy given the heavily touristed areas hit. The earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 was in a remote area without the same 'CNN effect'. While Haiti scooped the big aid dollars of 2010, Pakistan and its deadly floods later in the year affected more people but attracted far less money.

In the book, you outline a feminist approach to studying natural disasters. Explain how the 2004 tsunami had gendered impacts.

We know that roughly three women died in the tsunami for every man. In conflicts, men are often more at risk of death than women. Both kinds of disasters destabilize social relations, including gender, and remake society in new ways. For me, a feminist approach to studying disasters is one that engages actors and survivors on the ground, and analyzes a range of power relations that include gender but also ethnicity/race, caste, region, and other kinds of politicized status.

Why do you think international aid given after the Haiti earthquake disaster has generated so little meaningful progress?

The lethargy of recovery in Haiti has everything to do with the dual disasters thesis. With a poorly functioning state and weak institutions to implement and monitor humanitarian aid, capacity to respond to the earthquake was far lower than it was in Chile months later where both physical and social infrastructures were in place.

What’s the best lesson we can take away from the 2004 tsunami response when addressing future natural disasters?

Many humanitarian crises to come will be dual disasters or even multiple ones. All humanitarian needs should be addressed, regardless of whether they are related to global warming, ongoing war, tsunami, or earthquake. Inequitable aid distribution after the tsunami in Aceh created disparities and tensions that have the potential to undermine the current peace.


  1. Congratulations Jennifer!!!
    I know you are passionate about humanitarian aid. We should all learn from this. Thank you.
    Pamela Parker

  2. Congratulations, Jennifer -- this looks really fascinating and eye-opening.
    Meg Holden