Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts about the disaster of the response to Haiti

Of course, we have all heard about the disaster in Haiti. The earthquake was a tragedy, but what was more tragic was the disaster in the response to the earthquake.

Despite the spin being but on by the UN and the US, the people on the ground where not getting emergency aid. Listen to the BBC reports from Haiti, especially the first two days. The journalists are all saying that they are seeing no aid coming to the streets.

All of the experts on emergency response say that the first 24 hours are the most critical. And that is precisely where the Haiti relief effort failed.

Within the UN there is set up the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, which is designed to coordinate all of the relief agencies, including those from individual countries, the UN, and NGO's.

But it did not seem to work this time. I am sure what went wrong. I can see three possible explanations (or any combination of these). First, is that the United States did not allow OCHA to do their job (see next paragraph). OCHA may of also planned on relying on the UN mission in Haiti, which was severely hampered by the collapse of their building and death of many of their employees. However, that mission does not an emergency relief job. Lastly, it is possible that many organizations where so eager to get into Haiti that they bypassed OCHA. It was like a stampede through a narrow door.

The United States attitude during this operation has been absolutely horrible. It has acted as a bully. Its military went in talking to no one (the UN (especially OCHA), the Haitian government, NGO's, etc) and then said it was in charge. There are many stories of aid from humanitarian organizations (including the US Red Cross) being turned back. So the scenes we saw where gun toting soldiers, and, of course, talk about security of supplies, despite the fact of very little problems.

The root problem is that the US military's official policy is it will not take orders from anyone (which is why there are no US forces within the UN peacekeeping force). It is also interesting to note that they had a humanitarian school, which they closed down.

A related issue that also needs to be looked at here is funding for emergency relief. For other areas of UN work (including peacekeeping) each country is assessed an amount. But for humanitarian work funding is based on voluntary, each country gives what they want, if any. And the funding is mostly on a emergency-specific basis.

That in itself means that funding is unreliable, but worse is that much of what money is pledged is not actually distributed.

Future Responses

We need to have a serious change in the way that the world responses to disasters. Here are some solutions that we must consider in the future:

We need to have responders ready to go anywhere within hours of notice. There must be a realization that when a disaster occurs local responders may be incapacitated. That is especially critical in small countries or countries where the population is concentrated.

Have logistics centers set up around the world in strategic locations. These need to have supplies ready and stand-by personnel.

Increase coordination. The role of OCHA must be reinforced, legally if possible. And they must be ready to take that role - immediately and unconditionally.

The method of funding for humanitarian work must be changed. It needs to be funded on a permanent basis so the agencies need not have to go begging.

Demilitarization of the emergency as it applies to natural disaster relief.