For future disaster preparedness, Sierra Leone could look to Cuba

On August 14th, Mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone killed 1,000 people, mostly inhabitants of the urban slums in the hills above the capital. Despite its portrayal as a natural disaster caused by days of heavy rain, “the tragedy was entirely man-made,” as writer Lansana Gberie states bluntly. The result of environmental degradation, lack of disaster preparedness and substandard housing for the poor, these deaths could have been avoided.

Much like the Ebola epidemic that killed 4,000 Sierra Leoneans in 2014, the deep roots of this disaster are the neocolonial structures and neoliberal policies that govern Sierra Leone. They assure, as Joshua Lew McDermott, the President of the African Socialist Movement International Support Committee, argues in Jacobin: that “… the levers of the Sierra Leonean state that could have checked the wealth extraction and bolstered domestic industries and social services were done away with in the name of fiscal austerity, debt repayment, and incentivizing foreign investment.”

While poverty constrains the resources available for disaster response, not all governments in poor countries are equally ineffective. The difference in government response is highlighted every time there is a major hurricane in the Caribbean, and many more die in Haiti than in Cuba. For example, Hurricane Matthew killed 546 in Haiti and only four in Cuba despite being of similar intensity in both locations (it also killed 47 Americans).

The government of Cuba, unlike Haiti’s, invests in meteorology, with dozens of weather stations to monitor, predict and track incoming storms. The victims in Sierra Leone sadly had no similar warning system. In Cuba, there are annual preparations and drills in May at the beginning of hurricane season. The military and police make plans for evacuations. In “areas identified as vulnerable,” authorities provide “electrical generators, drinking water and additional medical personnel in advance of the storm’s approach, as members of the community are bestowed with the responsibility of providing such essential services.”

Furthermore, the Cuban government provides its citizens with health care and education. “Compared to their Caribbean neighbors, Cubans are far better prepared for emergencies. Not only do they benefit from better infrastructure and housing, as well as a highly effective risk communication system, but more importantly, Cuba is populated by the most educated population in the developing world.” A more educated population better understands the risks posed by hurricanes and how to respond to them.

Although many dismiss Cuba’s success at minimizing the number of deaths due to hurricanes and other natural disasters as possible only in one-party state, “there’s little about its hurricane program that rests on authoritarianism.” While, “the hurricane response may be directed from the top down… it’s carried out by ordinary Cubans in their local communities, building on the regular training they receive.” There is no technical reason why Sierra Leone could not follow such a model of “total mobilization.” The problem is political will.

The real impediment is that neocolonialism and neoliberalism deprive the Sierra Leonean government of the fiscal capacity and policy space to solve the problems of substandard housing and lack of disaster preparedness. Many NGOs are doing an admirable job of replying to the crisis, but disaster relief is a core government function and the Sierra Leonean government is simply too small and disorganized to handle such crises.

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By Francisco Perez

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