John Holmes visits Port-au-Prince 6 months after the earthquake John Holmes visits Port-au-Prince 6 months after the earthquake Photo credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

The Haiti earthquake: would we make the same mistakes again?

by John Holmes
8 January 2015

It has been five years since the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. To mark the anniversary, this blog series seeks to look at the disaster, the response, and the current state of humanitarian need in Haiti to date. In the first blog, former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes reflects on the response and asks if, given what we know now, would the humanitarian sector make the same mistakes again?

My experience as Emergency Relief Coordinator during the first few months of the response to the Haiti earthquake remains vividly in my memory as one of the two or three most difficult periods of my time with the UN. I was not alone in regarding it as hugely challenging. Many disaster veterans struggled to recall a context where it was so frustratingly difficult to make even simple things happen. I have no space here to revisit the detailed problems, but it is worth asking again why this natural disaster, which should have been much easier to deal with than the highly politicised conflicts in Sri Lanka, Darfur or Gaza, was in fact just as tough; why the reconstruction effort struggled with these problems arguably even more than the initial humanitarian response; and what conclusions we should draw from this.

The simple answer, I suppose, beyond the actual destruction wrought by the earthquake, is that this was and is a place where almost nothing works well, where everything, including politics, land rights and even agriculture, is complex and messy, and where the relationship between the government and international aid agencies was already seriously compromised (‘the republic of NGOs’). We had already grappled not very successfully with all this in response to floods in 2008, and therefore knew what we had to face. However putting the problem in such terms tells us little about how we could have performed better, or indeed whether we could have done so at all.

One of the most common criticisms of the response is that we failed to engage enough with local actors, even when they had begun to recover from the devastation of the earthquake, and failed to understand well enough the local political, economic and social dynamics. The early problems of access to the Minustah base, and of too many meetings in English, have been well-documented. These are certainly valid points. Many mistakes were made.

But there are bigger issues behind this. First, how far can and should international responders, particularly those dealing with initial urgent needs, be expected to get to grips with all this convoluted local reality before acting, and would it largely condemn them to inaction if they did try to understand it all? Second, to what extent should an international aid effort simply accept and deal with unpleasant and unfair local practices and policies, as opposed to trying to change them?

Neither question has a simple answer, but let me set out a few quick thoughts. On the first question, understanding the local scene is clearly fundamental to a successful relief effort, and every attempt should be made to nurture that understanding. At the same time, bringing in basic supplies such as food, clean water and medical assistance in such circumstances needs outside technical expertise and money more than political sophistication, and on occasion local views, such as that of the Haitian president at the time that food aid was not needed after a few weeks, may need to be over-ridden in the short term. Once it comes to issues with longer-term implications such as shelter, however, where so many things went wrong in Haiti, local conditions become crucial almost immediately and cannot be ignored. That’s the balance which has to be struck, and where humanitarian leaders have to make sure agencies don’t go their own ways. It is also of course why building local capacity and encouraging local responses wherever possible are so important.

The second question is more difficult still. One of the aims from the start in Haiti, rightly, was to ‘build back better’, not only physically but also in other ways. No one wanted just to patch up the awful status quo ante. But this almost immediately ran into a second also highly desirable principle, that of a Haitian-led reconstruction operation, not an internationally-imposed blueprint. There would have been no major clash of principles if the authorities in Haiti had been competent and free of corruption. But they were clearly neither. So how was the balance to be struck between putting Haitians in the lead, on the one hand, and giving donors confidence that their money was going to be used and not abused, on the other? This bedevilled the reconstruction effort right from the start.

I was not centrally involved in longer-term reconstruction, but my view at the time, and now, was that where choices had to be made, the preference had to be given to local leadership and involvement, because otherwise the risk of lack of ownership of what was being done was too great, and the government would be even further disempowered, to no one’s benefit in the long run. Risks therefore had to be taken. But it was easier to say that from my position than to tell donors that some of their money might well not go where it was meant to, with media and parliamentary scrutiny looming large in their minds. The result in practice has inevitably been a muddle.

A completely rational, externally-driven, approach to the post-earthquake problems in Port-au-Prince might have pointed to more radical solutions, such as abandoning the city and rebuilding the capital elsewhere, given the continuing earthquake risk and the difficulty of reconstructing it effectively in the limited area between the sea and the mountains; or making aid beyond immediate humanitarian relief conditional on radical reform and the establishment of a genuinely effective and accountable local government. But such things were never going to happen in reality, and the international aid effort has been condemned to struggle on.

Will we do better the next time disaster strikes Haiti, which is after all only a matter of time? I am sure we have learned some lessons. But I doubt we have been able to do anything like enough on the disaster risk reduction front, or on building a local disaster management system. Next time we may be a bit better, but the underlying fundamentals have not changed much if at all. The response will therefore remain messy, as real life almost always is.

John Holmes is the Director of the Ditchley Foundation and served as the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2007-2010.

Also in this series:


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