American Samoa



This case explores the complicated and political nature of aid distribution after disasters. On September 29, 2009 three earthquakes set off a tsunami that struck the US island territory of American Samoa, killing 34 and causing massive damage. American Samoa has a twin governance structure, balanced between a democratic territorial government and traditional, autonomous village councils. In this case, students will take on the role of a program officer who is in charge of aid delivery for a major non-governmental organization. Students must grapple with time-sensitive aid distribution in an unfamiliar political context and must weigh the consequences of competing demands from donors and village leaders in the disaster recovery process.

Planning Topics

disaster management, humanitarian assistance, governance, social justice

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the importance of local governance institutions in development decision-making.
  2. Consider the unique challenges of development work in post-disaster scenarios.
  3. Consider the relationship between indigenous knowledge and institutions and Western development organizations and projects/programs.
  4. Discuss the potential conflict between community ethics and the ethics guiding development organizations and projects/programs.
  5. Recognize how different approaches to aid distribution may create conflict, especially in time-sensitive contexts.

Download Case Study Files

Suggested Readings

  • Barnett, J., and N. W. Adger (2003). Climate dangers and atoll countries. Climatic Change 61: 321-337. Read the abstract.
  • Carcellar, N., J. Rayos and Z. Hipolito (2011). Addressing disaster risk reduction through community-rooted interventions in the Philippines: Experience of the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines. Environment and Urbanization 23(2): 365-381. Read the abstract.
  • Mercer, J., I. Kelman, L. Taranis, and S. Suchet-Pearson (2010). Framework for integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge for disaster risk reduction. Disasters 34(1): 214-239. Read the abstract.
  • Rumbach, A. and D. Foley (2014). Indigenous institutions and their role in disaster risk reduction and resilience: Evidence from the 2009 tsunami in American Samoa. Ecology and Society 19(1). Download the full article.