Business Daily Media
Business Marketing

Morocco's earthquake and Libya's floods highlight obstacles to relief efforts, from botched disaster diplomacy to destroyed infrastructure

  • Written by William Lawrence, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, American University
Morocco's earthquake and Libya's floods highlight obstacles to relief efforts, from botched disaster diplomacy to destroyed infrastructure

A 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Morocco[1] on Sept. 8, 2023, causing widespread damage in mountain villages. Three days later, an unusually severe Mediterranean storm[2] caused two poorly maintained Libyan dams to collapse[3], resulting in massive floods[4] in and around the port city of Derna.

By Sept. 19, more than 3,000 people had died in Morocco[5], according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. And the World Health Organization was saying that nearly 4,000 people had died in Libya[6], with another 10,000 missing – casualties that are unprecedented for a flood in Africa. More than 46,000 Libyans have become displaced[7], according to the International Organization for Migration.

The Conversation asked William Lawrence[8], a professor of political science and international affairs who has served as a senior diplomat at the U.S. embassies in Morocco and Libya, to explain why responding to these disasters has been especially hard.

Is enough aid reaching communities harmed by these disasters?

No. With Morocco, there’s strong government bureaucracy, and in Libya, the authorities are weak. But the results are the same: Not enough aid has gotten where it needs to go.

Thousands of Moroccan villages[9] have been damaged and hundreds destroyed, according to sophisticated mapping and eyewitnesses. The government is responding, but this is beyond its capacity. Even if the country’s entire army and everyone providing social services in Morocco were deployed, it wouldn’t be enough.

Morocco has so far declined aid offers[10] from the United Nations[11], France[12] and dozens of other countries. From the U.S., Morocco had only accepted, as of Sept. 19, President Joe Biden’s condolences[13]. It had accepted aid from only Spain, the U.K., Qatar and the United Arab Emirates within a week of the earthquake.

Usually, with huge disasters like these, problems arise over the coordination of aid, rather than its acceptance.

Libya is contending with another unimaginable disaster. One quarter of the city of Derna, which previously had a population of 100,000, was completely flattened[14]. In the first week, very little of the aid that arrived was getting where it needed to go because the access roads and bridges to Derna were wiped out[15].

It’s macabre and devastating, but what Libya most desperately needs right now is specialized equipment to extract bodies from the flood plain and rubble – and body bags. Islam, Libya’s dominant religion, normally requires a speedy burial, but local people can’t do that and dispose of corpses properly[16].

And Libya has little ability to coordinate the aid[17] that’s getting there.

Rescue workers in bright-colored clothing walk amidst rubble in North Africa.
Rescue teams assist in relief work in Libya’s eastern city of Derna on Sept. 18, 2023, following deadly flash floods. Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images[18]

Do these countries need assistance?

King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s monarch[19], is reportedly[20] a billionaire[21]. But he can’t pay for everything the country needs to recover – and shouldn’t.

Moroccans aren’t necessarily angry that he’s rejecting some of the aid the international community is offering, due to a history and psychology around the monarchy that I’ve studied extensively. They refer to the monarchy in ways that go beyond what the monarch can accomplish. They want their king to do everything even when he can’t.

With Libya, there’s a different constellation of problems. Although it’s an oil-rich country that exports about 1 million barrels of petroleum[22] on a good day, there’s poor governance. There are two governments fighting for power. Both sides are asking for foreign aid[23], while blaming each other for not doing anything to protect people from danger before, during and after the disaster.

How will initial aid restrictions affect later recovery efforts?

There are long-term benefits from good disaster diplomacy.

Spanish rescue teams saved a few lives in Turkey[24] following its devastating February 2023 earthquake. Given that more than 50,000 people died[25] in that disaster, it might not sound like much. But in addition to their contributions and provision of expertise, foreign rescuers’ success can inspire organizations and communities at home to get invested in longer-term recovery and reconstruction.

Because of Morocco’s wonderful tourism[26], there’s a lot of goodwill toward the nation and a lot of people who want to invest in the rescue – and a feeling now that they are being shut out. I believe that rejecting assistance may create the impression the government didn’t do everything it could in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath.

To be sure, something like this happened in the United States following Hurricane Katrina[27] in 2004. I served on the State Department’s Katrina Task Force. Countries around the world were offering us aid that was very hard for us to accept psychologically and bureaucratically. The U.S. gives assistance better than it receives it. That assistance was hugely impactful – front page news in the donor countries that had previously only received U.S. aid and were now able to give back.

What are the Red Crescent and the Red Cross doing?

The Red Crescent, as the Red Cross is known in Muslim-majority countries, is assisting disaster survivors in Morocco[28]. Its volunteers are providing first aid and counseling, helping move injured survivors to hospitals and evacuating others.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian organization[29]. It’s also making a difference in Libya[30], where three Red Crescent volunteers have died in rescue efforts.

The problem in both cases is that there still aren’t enough staff and volunteers who are trained in large-scale disaster operations to meet the demand.

The IFRC has issued an appeal for 100 million Swiss francs[31] (US$111.5 million) to assist Morocco. There is also a U.N. appeal for $71.4 million[32] to help Libya deal with this disaster and its aftermath.


  1. ^ earthquake struck southern Morocco (
  2. ^ unusually severe Mediterranean storm (
  3. ^ two poorly maintained Libyan dams to collapse (
  4. ^ resulting in massive floods (
  5. ^ more than 3,000 people had died in Morocco (
  6. ^ nearly 4,000 people had died in Libya (
  7. ^ 46,000 Libyans have become displaced (
  8. ^ William Lawrence (
  9. ^ Thousands of Moroccan villages (
  10. ^ has so far declined aid offers (
  11. ^ from the United Nations (
  12. ^ France (
  13. ^ President Joe Biden’s condolences (
  14. ^ was completely flattened (
  15. ^ roads and bridges to Derna were wiped out (
  16. ^ dispose of corpses properly (
  17. ^ coordinate the aid (
  18. ^ Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images (
  19. ^ King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s monarch (
  20. ^ reportedly (
  21. ^ billionaire (
  22. ^ exports about 1 million barrels of petroleum (
  23. ^ asking for foreign aid (
  24. ^ Spanish rescue teams saved a few lives in Turkey (
  25. ^ more than 50,000 people died (
  26. ^ wonderful tourism (
  27. ^ following Hurricane Katrina (
  28. ^ assisting disaster survivors in Morocco (
  29. ^ world’s largest humanitarian organization (
  30. ^ Libya (
  31. ^ issued an appeal for 100 million Swiss francs (
  32. ^ U.N. appeal for $71.4 million (

Read more


Feeling down and unmotivated at work? Insights show that it’s the space you’re in

It may come as a surprise, but over your lifetime you will spend an average of 90,000 hours on the job, according to data in the study, Happiness at Work1. This will likely equate to a whopping one-third of your life, between ...

HubSpot Announces New JAPAC Vice President & Managing Director, Dan Bognar

HubSpot, the customer relationship management (CRM) platform for scaling companies, announced today that Dan Bognar has joined the company as Vice President of Sales & Managing Director for the JAPAC region.  Bognar joins...

Top reasons why you should buy everything on your credit card

“Credit cards are no longer being used to just pay off major purchases anymore. While it might feel silly or against your natural instincts to use a credit card for a small purchase, there are certainly benefits to that tran...

Virtual Office