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The Game Theory of Disaster Relief

This article discussed game theory as a strategy for maximizing the efficiency of disaster relief.

Natural disasters cost the US on average 100 billion dollars each year and the number of people affected continues to grow. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took over 2,000 lives and cost the country upwards of 125,000 billion dollars. Natural disasters are incredibly tragic and heart wrenching. Those who are affected by the aftermath are very vulnerable and need tremendous support. This support largely comes from nonprofit organizations or NPOs. There are over 1.5 million NPOs in the US today, a drastically larger number than the 12,000 that were seen in 1940. While these organizations share largely the same goals there are several areas of conflict. The first is that NPOs are all competing to sustain themselves. NPOs compete for finical funds and the support of stakeholders, who are not an infinite resource. Secondly, because of this competition, there is little communication between organizations. This leads to a lack of coordination and strategic use of resources. Some services are sent in duplicates so that there are more than are needed and can be used. 60% of all items that arrive at a disaster are non-priority. Furthermore, because uncritical services are being overserved, critical services are being underserved and the excess of less needed services creates a backup that makes the critical services that are being sent even harder to deliver. Better coordination would lead to a dramatic improvement in disaster response by both providing more critical resources and making those critical resources easier to deliver.


This article proposes game theory as a method for determining how NPOs, the players, can behave in order to maximize the success of both themselves and other organizations. They used game theory to find the Nash Equilibrium of a case study of Hurricane Katrina so that all basic needs could be met and excess resources could be allocated in the most efficient manner. Using game theory provides the opportunity to eliminate over and undersupplying resources because it considering how other organizations behave would help NPOs to do what was most beneficial to the scenario as a whole instead of what is easiest for them individually. This study showed the importance of coordination in regards to disaster relief and has very powerful policy implications. Regulations on how and what NPOs help or even just a transparent way for them to communicate with one another could lead to real improvements in disaster response. And those improvements could end up meaning everything to those who have just lost everything.


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September 2017